The first three entries in this series examined the need for better outreach, education and enforcement to ensure that all workers eligible for a job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act know about and have access to such leaves. The second entry showed that extending the FMLA to cover work sites with fewer than 50 workers would not be a heavy lift for smaller businesses, many of which already provide at least some types of FMLA leave. Expanding the coverage of the FMLA to smaller businesses would level the playing field for these good employers. Part 3 of the series documented the unequal access of workers to employer-provided pay during FMLA leaves, mostly cobbled together from paid time off, paid sick days, and paid vacation benefits that are far less available to worker in low-paid and low-status jobs. A paid leave insurance program similar to those in California and New Jersey would narrow the gap in access to pay during a family or medical leave between workers in high-paid and low-paid jobs and help reduce inequality without burdening employers.

In this final entry in the series, we examine the experiences of employers with the FMLA.

Family and Medical Leave – A Non-Event for Employers

For a decade before the FMLA was finally signed into law, business lobbyists opposed its passage on the grounds that it would impose a burden on employers and would lead to fraudulent claims and abuse by workers. Now that employers have had 20 years' experience with the Act, it is clear that these fears were unwarranted.

The 2012 Employer survey asked employers what effect complying with the FMLA had at their work site on employee productivity, absenteeism, turnover, career advancement and morale, as well as the business' profitability. More than 9 out of 10 (91.2 percent) of employers at covered work sites with 50 employees in a 75 mile radius reported either no noticeable effect (53.8 percent) or a positive effect (37.4 percent). Intermittent leaves – periodic leaves for chemotherapy treatments or to recover from a disabling migraine head ache – were a special concern of employers who felt that they would be especially detrimental to business operations and would be vulnerable to abuse by employees. Neither of these fears has materialized. Just 3.1 percent of employers at covered work sites report moderate or large negative effects on productivity at their work site, and 1.6 percent report moderate or large negative effects on profitability.

Larger employers were somewhat more likely than smaller employers to report negative effects of FMLA leaves on business operations.

Employers report that abuse of the FMLA by employees is relatively rare. Only 1.6 percent of worksites reported any confirmed cases of misuse of FMLA leaves, and just 2.5 percent report suspicion of misuse based on the pattern of absences or other circumstantial evidence.

Dealing with leaves is challenging for all businesses whether or not they are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act and whether the leave is for vacation or for an FMLA-qualified reason. Unscheduled leaves are the most difficult for employers to cope with. Among covered worksites, three fifths report difficulty with unscheduled leaves. Half of these employers (51.2 percent) report that it is somewhat difficult to deal with unscheduled leaves and another tenth (8.6 percent) find it very difficult to do so. However, planned long-term leaves for a family or medical reason are much easier for employers covered by the FMLA to handle than are unscheduled leaves – with 44.7 percent of worksites finding it somewhat or very difficult to handle FMLA leaves compared with 59.8 percent in the case of unscheduled leaves – a fifteen percentage point difference.

Most covered work sites have found it easy to administer and comply with the provisions of the FMLA. More than 8 in 10 employers (85.4 percent) report that complying with the FMLA is easy or has had no noticeable effect. Just 1 percent report that it is very difficult, and 13.6 percent found it somewhat difficult.

Like the 1995 and 2000 FMLA surveys, this information should help allay business concerns about the burden of FMLA rules and of employee leaves under the Act.

The most important takeaway from the DOL surveys of employee and employer experiences with the Family and Medical Leave Act is that it has greatly benefitted workers who have access to job protected leave to care for their families without unduly burdening employers, for whom it has largely been a non-event. Expanding coverage to worksites with fewer than 50 employees will not be a heavy lift for small employers, many of whom already allow employees to take leaves for FMLA-qualifying reasons. A Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program to provide paid leaves ease the financial burden on the many families that do not have access to employer-provided pay when they take leave and reduce the barrier to caring for families for the four percent of workers who forego leave when their family needs them because they can't afford to take an unpaid leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act has been a great first step, but America can do better.