U.S. Rep. Adam Smith wants to expand a federal law covering illnesses and injuries to include up to two weeks of unpaid leave for family members of deployed service members – a benefit already available to military families in Washington state.
The Tacoma Democrat, testifying last week before the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, said his bill would allow time off for the spouses, children and parents of any member of the armed forces who is deployed or mobilized for active duty or returning from a combat zone with an injury.
“It’s a complex problem,” Smith said, “and the needs of the families crop up in ways that surprise us as policymakers.”
It’s an expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was amended in 2008 to allow military families to take time because of deployments. But to qualify under current law, a family member must work for the same employer for more than a year, must work more than 1,250 hours in the past year, and that company must have more than 50 employees.
Military family members sometimes fail to meet those requirements because they move frequently, Smith testified Thursday. The proposed legislation would cover those who don’t qualify.
“It would apply across the board, to any job a military family member might have,” he said.
Smith introduced the legislation, officially dubbed the Military Family Leave Act of 2009, last July. It has since attracted seven cosponsors. But the Army Times, quoting congressional aides, said one concern is that employers might balk at hiring military family members or might be more likely to lay them off during tough times.
Such a scenario could hold up the bill from passing the full House without a lengthy debate.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced a corresponding bill last year. It has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions but has yet to come up for a hearing.
The Washington Legislature passed a similar law in 2008 allowing family members to take 15 unpaid days off to spend time with their spouses before a deployment or during the service member’s mid-tour leave. All employers, regardless of size, are covered under the state law. An employee must work an average of 20 hours per week to qualify.
A spokesman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord said the base’s family liaisons weren’t previously aware of the state law but will soon begin including it in briefings about benefits available to family members.
Timothy S. Embree, a legislative associate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, testified Thursday before the subcommittee that the federal bill would “provide a cushion for family members to handle all of the unexpected tasks, errands and responsibilities that surface during a deployment.”
But Embree said his organization wanted to see the bill amended to prohibit employers from requiring family members from exhausting other forms of leave not explicitly stated in the bill, including sick time and comp time.
Stacy Bannerman, the wife of an Oregon National Guard noncommissioned officer, testified in favor of the bill.
“Many of us have to choose between work and family when our loved one deploys,” said Bannerman, who previously lived in Kent when her husband served with the Washington Guard. “It’s an impossible choice, and one that military families should never be asked to make when America is at war.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-597-8646