Thursday, May 29, 2003

Family leave: A ruling for fairness

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that state workers can sue their employers when denied time off to care for a sick family member. The ruling is a strong affirmation of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and a forceful rejection of stereotypes about the family roles of men and women.

The 6-3 decision allows Nevada social worker William Hibbs to sue his state for money because it fired him in violation of the FMLA. Hibbs insisted his request to take five weeks of "catastrophic leave" under Nevada state law not be included as part of 12 weeks' absence under the federal FMLA. His bosses disagreed and fired him when his leave expired while he remained home caring for this wife, who was critically injured in an auto accident.

Heretofore states have enjoyed broad 11th Amendment immunity against private lawsuits and a series of high court rulings have curtailed the power of Congress to put demands on the states.

But the Family and Medical Leave Act is different, wrote Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, for the majority, because it protected "the right to be free from gender-based discrimination in the workplace." In writing the 1993 law, he said, Congress had gathered evidence that states and private companies relied on stereotypes about women as caregivers and men as breadwinners.

"Congress sought to ensure that family-care leave would no longer be stigmatized as an inordinate drain on the workplace caused by female employees and that employers could not evade leave obligations simply by hiring men," he wrote. Sex discrimination was the key. The court said Congress' power in this case arose from its constitutional power to prevent sex discrimination.

The ruling affects some 5 million state workers and breaks a string of Rehnquist Court rulings that shielded states from private attempts to enforce many federal acts. The rights of private-sector workers were not at issue in this case. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which applies to employers of 50 or more people, guarantees workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for health-related absences of their own or family members. The decision is a victory for fairness and equal treatment, both for men and women and for state workers.

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