Attack on Family Medical Leave Could be Slipped into State Budget 

By State Senator Julie Lassa

As of this writing, it is still not clear when the Legislative Joint Finance Committee will complete its work on the next state budget after it missed a self-imposed Memorial Day deadline.  Some insiders are guessing that it could take well into July.  One of the dangers of this kind of delay is that it gives special interest groups more time to work on slipping non-fiscal provisions into the budget at the last minute.  This tactic is often used to get policies passed into law that would never stand the light of public scrutiny as stand-alone bills.

One bad idea that has actually been discussed in Madison in recent days is repealing Wisconsin’s Family Medical Leave Act.  The FMLA guarantees the right of working people to take time off when they suffer a serious disease or injury, when they have a new baby to take care of, or if they need to tend to a sick family member.  Joint Finance Co-chairman John Nygren (R-Marinette) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) both expressed support for the idea of weakening our law, claiming that federal policies would be sufficient to protect Wisconsin workers.  But the truth is that federal law is bare bones basic, while our law provides more protections for working men and women.

Repealing Wisconsin’s FMLA would make it harder for working people to take care of themselves and their families.  For one thing, it’s more difficult to qualify for family leave under federal law; you have to work 25 percent longer in a year to qualify.  Wisconsin’s FMLA provides leave for more kinds of health care than the federal act, and it provides more flexibility for working people to decide when they want to use paid leave, like paid sick leave or vacation, and when they want to take unpaid leave.  Finally, the federal law provides more exemptions that allow employers to deny leave, lets employers require more medical certifications, and requires longer pre-notification than the Wisconsin FMLA does.  The net effect of repealing the Wisconsin law would be to provide fewer protections for Wisconsin workers and their families.

As I see it, repealing the FMLA would be one more in a continuing series of attacks on Wisconsin’s middle class families. Under a Republican governor and Legislature, we’ve seen the repeal of equal pay provisions that help prevent gender discrimination. We’ve seen the passage of a number of measures that make it more difficult to collect unemployment benefits when you’re laid off.  We’ve seen workplace rights stripped away, and low-income working families thrown off their health insurance. The ability of communities to pass local sick leave ordinances has been restricted.  Some Republican legislators have even introduced a bill that would effectively enable employers to coerce employees into working seven days a week.  It's no wonder that the Pew Charitable Trust recently reported that Wisconsin’s middle class is declining faster than in any other state.

Wisconsin's hardworking families are having a tough enough time making ends meet, and the policies that Republican legislators are pushing will only make things worse. If you need to take care of a baby or a sick parent, or if you have serious health problems, you ought to be able to take some time off work without the extra stress of worrying about losing your job. As legislators, we need to be vigilant to make sure that one more attack on Wisconsin’s middle-class families isn’t slipped into the state budget at the last minute.