Buchman, 37, who lives in Clarksville, was not covered by the federal Family Medical Leave Act. And a new Labor Department survey shows that neither is 40 percent of the U.S. workforce.
Advocates, including President Obama, hailed the hard-won law’s 20th anniversary this week, saying it has helped an estimated 100 million workers take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually to handle health issues without losing their jobs. International studies have found that it is the only “family-friendly” policy in the United States and that other countries have more. But Buchman wanted to get the word out that the policy isn’t so family friendly after all.
“Can you imagine if you were never sick, never had a baby, you never had a wife who had a baby, if your parents never needed help. I mean, who is that?” Buchman said. “I was lucky. My husband had a job, and we went into crazy credit card debt. But so many people who don’t have the support system I had are one accident, one illness away from losing their livelihood.”
The law, which took nine years to pass, was designed to acknowledge that workers and their families get sick, workers have babies and workers need to care for aging parents. The business community insisted that the leave be unpaid as a check on employee misuse, said Marc Freedman, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It does not apply to companies with 50 or fewer employees, part-time workers, those who have worked for a company for less than a year or those who have taken unpaid medical leave within the previous year. It also does not cover workers who care for grandparents or extended family members.
In medical emergencies, the fate of those workers is left entirely up to individual managers and companies. Some companies that are not forced to comply with the leave act, such as the Cook Ross consulting company in Silver Spring, match and exceed the federal law. Others don’t.
And even when workers are covered by the law, they are sometimes penalized for taking advantage of it, as court cases and 5,375 labor violations show. Workers covered by the law have been fired for asking for leave to care for chronically ill parents or to accompany a dying father to the hospital.
Yolanda Holmes was fired when she didn’t return to work when her baby was 12 days old. Holmes had been on doctor-
ordered bed rest during her pregnancy. Her employer, the former E. Spire Communications of Annapolis, maintained that she had used up all her medical leave before the baby’s birth. She sued in federal court and lost.