By Martha De La Rosa
Five years before President Clinton signed the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, Wisconsin won a state law – one of the first to include family leave and to guarantee that workers could use any paid time they’d earned for the unpaid purposes of the law. That 1988 win happened after our Keep Families First coalition brought a group of children to Madison to share stories of why their parents had needed to take time to care for them or another family member.
Last year we brought another group of kids to the state capitol, this time to make sure no one weakened the provisions of our law.
Among those children was David Jones, then age 12, who lives in Stevens Point. Here’s what he shared via video:
“I love math, technology, science and my dog Max. In 2009, I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, and thanks to my mom and dad, got to spend the rest of my third grade year at home getting medications out of my system and getting better. Doctors put me on a lot of medications to help me manage my behavior, but rather than help, they made things much worse. I felt crummy, like I wanted to kill myself….
After things continued getting worse at school and I was suspended and restrained, my parents took me to another doctor, finally to learn that I had Aspergers Syndrome and no other mental health conditions that were previously diagnosed and led to those medications. My mom used FMLA to take off of work as a teacher, and stayed home with me. It helped our family that she could use her sick time for part of that. I remember feeling much calmer when I stopped taking all of the medications. I started laughing again and I didn’t feel the need to explode in anger anymore. When I was home I also realized that I was good at things….
I know that if my mom wouldn’t have taken off of work and stopped giving me those medications, who knows what would have happened to me. I hope that other kids with the same problems as me will continue to have the same opportunity to stay home for a time and get better.
In addition to providing for substitution of paid time, WI FMLA has other protections that go beyond the federal FMLA. Leave takers can use the time intermittently to breastfeed or bond with a new baby. Our law covers domestic partners and parents-in-law. To be protected by WI FMLA, a worker must be employed by a company with 50 or more employees anywhere in the state (as opposed to within a 75-mile radius, as federal law requires) and work 1,000 hours per year (as opposed to 1,250 under federal law) and be on the job for at least a year.
Even with these provisions, thousands of Wisconsinites are unable to take leave when they need to. As a recent national survey confirmed, many who are eligible for FMLA and need leave don’t take it – mostly because they cannot afford to go without pay. WI FMLA leaves out workers in smaller companies and many part-timers; it has a narrow definition of family that does not include siblings or grandparents; and it does not cover routine illnesses. Those who don’t accrue paid time have a difficult time making ends meet while on leave.
“I really loved my job as a nurse, but when my daughter who has cerebral palsy, had to be on a ventilator, I couldn’t leave her to attend a leadership in-service in another state,” said Cindy McCauley from Marinette, Wisconsin, who worked as a registered nurse. “Because I hadn’t been on the job a year, I was told I couldn’t take leave, so I had to submit my resignation. “No one should be forced to abandon a loved one or risk their own health in order to keep their job.”
As we celebrate the anniversaries of our state and federal FMLA, the Keep Families First Coalition will continue to work to make sure every Wisconsinite has the protections they need to be good family members without risking their paycheck or their job.