Feb. 25, 2005 -- With the U.S. Department of Justice poised to propose changes in the decade-old Family and Medical Leave Act, a study released by the National Federation of Independent Businesses showed that small business owners should pay close attention, but not be too concerned about the potential changes.

The FMLA requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for certain medical and family related situations. But some industry experts say the vague act is in need of an overhaul.

"The family related aspects of the act are fine," Michael Eastman, director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said. "But the broad scope regarding medical leave allows room for abuse and leaves employers few options to deal with those who choose to take advantage of the system."

The FMLA mandates that employers must give time off for serious family (including personal) injuries or for the birth of a child. But, according to Eastman, employers, especially small businesses, need more leverage and input into ensuring that the reason an employee is missing work is a valid one.

"There needs to be a clear-cut definition of what a 'serious' injury is," Eastman added. "Small businesses take harder hits if there is a person taking advantage of the system - coworkers will be aware of it and moral can be severely affected."

A study released last summer buy the NFIB shows that a majority of America's small business owners aren't overly concerned about the FMLA. According to the study, 82% of the small businesses surveyed handle requests that would fall under the FMLA on a case-by-case basis, with only 12% saying they have written a policy regarding family or medical leave in place. Though only 34% said they have had a request for extended time off in the last three years, the survey showed that not one request was denied. Jim Sollenberger, vice president of human resources for Berlin Packaging, a Chicago-based company that has 235 employees, adds that if a small business is having problems with employees abusing the FMLA, the problem isn't the act - it's the employees.

"If commitment is reciprocal, then any situation should be able to be worked out," Sollenberger said. "If us HR people do our jobs and bring on good people, then this should never be a problem."

But Sollenberger does agree with Eastman with regards to tweaking the FMLA to protect the employer, just in case. Both also suggested that by allowing more dialogue between the employee, doctor and employer the most common problem might be prevented.

"Miscommunication is the most prevalent problem," Eastman said. "Medical privacy is very, very important. But, if the act allowed more communication with the consent of all parties involved, that would be a great start."

Both the U.S. Department of Labor and the AFL-CIO refused to speculate as to the changes that may be proposed in March. But Sollenberger says the solution is pretty simple.

"You only hear about the bad apples - this 'problem' is blown way out of proportion. It's crucial to remember that every situation is different - if you treat people right, they'll treat you right."