April 19, 2005--In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was approved, allowing employees to take unpaid leave to handle certain illnesses or family problems. Labor unions and the Democratic party were big supporters of the act, while Republicans tended to be more cautious about it. Today, the Republican administration and the business lobby seem to be quietly preparing to change FMLA.

While the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) had scheduled a notice of proposed FMLA rules in March, so far, it hasn't made any decisions. Legislators and interest groups are scurrying to get their opinion heard while the DOL ponders the proposed changes.

A group of House Democrats wrote a letter dated April 12 asking Labor not to change FMLA, and a group of unions sent a similar letter, both saying FMLA was good for workers and good for business. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce, among other business-lobby groups, is asking for changes to FMLA.

These business groups say that while FMLA's intentions may be noble, its specifics can be vexing. Employers complain that it's too easy for their workers to cheat the system, that FMLA leaves can disrupt their businesses, and that administering FMLA is a hassle, for example. So business lobbyists are urging the DOL to make it more difficult to qualify for FMLA by defining exactly what a serious medical condition is, and lengthening the minimum "intermittent leave," which would mean an employee using FMLA leave regularly would use up his or her leave more quickly.

Opponents of change, though, worry that this will force people to take unpaid time off that they don't need.