Wisconsin is known for being a reform-focused state, often leading all other states when it comes to implementing major initiatives. The first kindergarten in the nation started in Watertown in 1856. In 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the national women’s suffrage amendment. School vouchers were first utilized in Milwaukee almost twenty-five years ago. Wisconsin led the way on welfare reform in the 1990s. And in 1988, Governor Tommy Thompson, in his first term as Governor, signed 1987 Wisconsin Act 287, establishing the Wisconsin Family Medical Leave Law.
Wisconsin’s family medical leave law provided what is considered a common benefit today for employees at medium to large companies – the ability to take unpaid time off for a major medical situation, to care for a newborn child or to care for a sick spouse or parent, without the fear of losing one’s job.
A few years after Governor Thompson brought this reform to Wisconsin the federal government followed suit. Fresh off his first inauguration, President Bill Clinton signed the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 on February 5, 1993. The federal law created a very similar mandate for medium to large employers nationwide to provide unpaid time off for employees facing serious medical situations personally or in their families, or to care for a new child.
Certainly, family medical leave has value for employees and employers alike. Having a happy and healthy workforce is an essential component of a productive and profitable company. In cases such as caring for a newborn child, an ill parent or a spouse with a serious medical condition, no one thinks twice anymore about temporary leave from work being appropriate. Unfortunately, because Wisconsin’s family medical leave law was signed before the federal version, there are discrepancies between the two that make compliance at times difficult. For instance, the federal law allows an employer to decide which calendar to use when computing leave benefits – a calendar year, fixed year, or rolling year 12-month period, versus the state law which demands the calendar year be used. Another instance is what type of paid leave substitution may be available.
In total, there are more than a dozen instances when the federal and state laws simply do not line up. This makes compliance difficult and sometimes very burdensome on employers, particularly for those operating in multiple states and having to use two different sets of rules; one for their Wisconsin employees and one for those in the rest of the country. Complicating matters further are a very small percentage of workers who have figured out how to abuse the systems in order to stack both federal and state leave on top of each other, or who consistently have a “serious medical condition” every Friday.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce has heard from employers throughout Wisconsin, large and small, about the burden this duplicative law causes for human resource departments. In response, WMC is working on a legislative reform package to federalize our law. Doing so will not only reduce employment red tape, but it will bring fairness to the system.
In addition to family medical leave, we are pursuing reforms of several other human resource laws to better align our employment laws with federal requirements. A few examples of where we would like the state to adopt the federal standards include the definition of work time, the federal standard of time-keeping, the definition of loss, theft and damage, and adopting the federal provisions relating to the discipline of exempt employees.
Taken together, the family medical leave update and human resource law reforms will break down employment red tape while preserving the protections employees have come to know and depend on.
By Chris Reader, WMC Director of Health & Human Resources Policy
Follow Chris on Twitter @ReaderWMC