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January 22, 2009

Some FMLA changes go into effect

The University’s staff handbook has been revised to reflect changes to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that took effect Jan. 16.

The updated FMLA clarifies employer and employee rights and responsibilities under FMLA and adds special provisions for military service members and their families.

FMLA gives eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year in the case of their serious medical condition or to care for a family member with a serious medical condition.

At Pitt, family members include a spouse, registered domestic partner, child under 18 (or older if he or she is disabled and incapable of self-care) or parent (not an in-law).

FMLA also can be used for leave for the care of a newborn child or a foster or adopted child. During the leave, the employee’s job is protected and group health benefits are maintained as if the employee was working. (Pitt’s disability insurer, MetLife, administers FMLA for staff members, post docs and research associates. The Office of the Provost administers leave for eligible faculty.)

Kathy Pratt of Human Resources said Pitt receives some 800 staff requests for FMLA leave each year. Those include requests that must be filed by employees who anticipate absences of more than three days (even if they ultimately do not need extended FMLA leave), those requesting pregnancy- and childbirth-related leave or bonding time for new babies and adopted or foster children.
The updated federal policy “adds a lot more clarity to the process,” Pratt said.

The changes took into account public comments on FMLA gathered by the U.S. Department of Labor over a number of years.

For instance, where the government once provided one FMLA form that covered requests for leave for the employee as well as for a leave requested to care for a family member, separate forms now will be available. “That will clarify it for the doctors,” said Pratt, who noted that the single form was confusing for some.

She said the big changes are the two provisions related to military families.

Changes affecting military families became law in January 2008 as part of the “Wounded Warrior Act.” That law entitles the spouse, son, daughter, parent or next of kin of an active-duty service member to 26 workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a service member who incurred an injury or illness in the line of duty.

In addition, taking effect with the Jan. 16 update, is an entitlement that allows families of military members or reservists called to active duty to use their 12-week FMLA entitlement to deal with “qualifying exigencies” such as attending certain military events, making financial, legal and childcare arrangements, attending counseling or post-deployment reintegration sessions.

Noting the sacrifices military families make when a loved one is called to duty, “If this makes their lives easier, that would be great,” Pratt said.

One Pitt staff member is among those who have walked in those shoes.

Marcia Chmill, an administrative employee in Faculty Records, had no such FMLA protection when her son, John, was wounded in Iraq in November 2004. John, a Marine, was driving 19 Army soldiers back from a mission when their armored truck was rammed by a police car filled with explosives. The truck became airborne and burst into flames, but all the soldiers survived, Chmill said. Her son’s leg was shattered and he lost an eye, three fingers and part of his hand.

He spent a month at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. — “I lived in his room the whole month,” she said — before he was able to return home to Pittsburgh.

Chmill, who at the time worked in the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, said she thought she would be able to return to work when John was discharged, but hadn’t realized the care her son would need. Heavily medicated and needing to use a wheelchair or walker, John couldn’t shower or handle other personal care tasks on his own. In addition, he needed follow-up visits to the Navy surgeons in Bethesda.

Chmill used vacation and sick leave to cover four weeks of time off, but was denied FMLA leave for additional time. She was able to arrange an unpaid administrative leave for six more weeks while her son was healing.

Convinced of the value of a mother’s care in a son or daughter’s recovery, Chmill began writing to Congress members. She sent letters to the heads of the military branches and the president.

“I thought I was the first asking for an amendment,” she said, later learning that legislation already was in the works. Although it was not part of her requests, she said she was especially pleased to see FMLA leave extended to 26 weeks, given that soldiers’ injuries often are complicated and require lengthy recovery times.

In Bethesda, Chmill became acquainted with other families facing similar difficult choices and saw soldiers whose families simply could not be away from work to be by their side.

“Just to know your job is protected is such a relief,” she said. “You don’t need another worry.

Chmill’s son’s injuries have healed and he now is living on his own. He graduated last August from Pitt with a degree in communication.

While she wasn’t the initiator of the new benefits, “I feel I was part of the change,” Chmill said. “If this was in effect during the time John was wounded, it would have been a benefit to me. It would have been a lot less stress in my life.”

The new handbook information can be found at

Additional information on FMLA is available at online.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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