A Headache for Workers

As a lifelong migraine sufferer, I'm used to hearing comments denigrating the seriousness of the condition, as if the debilitating, chronic headaches endured by 28 million Americans (most of us women) were merely the result of hypochondria, or an excuse to skip an awkward social engagement. But I never thought I'd hear those migraine myths perpetuated in the halls of Congress.

That's what happened in February when the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions met to consider the Department of Labor's proposed changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was the first law President Bill Clinton signed after taking office in 1993. Thanks to the FMLA, many Americans have the right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work after the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a seriously ill family member, or to deal with their own chronic health problems -- such as migraines.

As the clock runs down on George W. Bush's presidency and federal agencies scramble to enact pro-business policies, the Department of Labor (DOL) is doing its part by trying to weaken the FMLA. The DOL has seized upon a small number of employers' complaints about what is called "unscheduled, intermittent leave," which 60 million Americans have taken advantage of over the past 15 years. Under proposed new regulations, it would be more difficult for sick workers to take leave because they would be required to obtain a new doctor's certification of a chronic condition every year, even if they suffer from a lifelong illness such as diabetes or migraines. Such a change would be more than inconvenient; it discriminates against the 47 million Americans without health insurance, who pay out of pocket for every visit to a doctor's office.

Even more ridiculously, the DOL wants to require employees to request unscheduled, intermittent leave two days in advance. As Sen. Chris Dodd, one of the original co-sponsors of the FMLA, said at the Senate committee hearing in February, "Medical emergencies aren't planned in advance." I, for one, certainly can't predict on Monday that I'll get a migraine on Wednesday.

In its crusade against sick leave, the DOL is ignoring the opinions of the very employers this policy is no doubt intended to benefit: 80 percent to 90 percent of employers in the DOL's own survey said the FMLA had a neutral or positive effect on productivity, profitability, and employee morale. But that hasn't stopped the conservative media and congressional Republicans from coming out swinging against FMLA. "Many employers have lost control of their workforce," fumed a Wall Street Journal editorial. "Under current rules, workers can get an open-ended doctor's certificate for a condition -- asthma, migraines, whatever -- that allows them leave at any point."

A pro-DOL witness at the Senate hearing also seemed to have gotten the memo about belittling migraine patients. Kathie Elliott, assistant director of employee relations at Central Michigan University, told the committee about an employee who took leave for migraines 76 times in a year. "Each [absence] was unscheduled and unanticipated," Elliott said.

That seems extreme, until you consider the realities of chronic pain. During severe times, I get as many as three migraines per week. If I took a half-day off for each migraine, I could run through my allotted FMLA leave in 10 months, just like the employee at Central Michigan. Like the vast majority of migraine sufferers, I try to work through my attacks. But I'm lucky to be assisted by comprehensive health insurance, the best neurological care, aggressive drug therapy, and a job that requires almost no physical endurance. If I had to stand all day at a checkout counter with a migraine, fighting nausea while I put on a happy face for customers, my life would be very different.

The DOL has cherry-picked evidence from an eight-year-old study to suggest that millions of workers are abusing FMLA. In fact, the larger problem is that millions who wish they could access leave can't, because they can't afford unpaid time off. That's why Dodd and Republican Sen. Ted Stevens have introduced legislation that would give many workers the opportunity to take up to eight weeks of partially paid family or medical leave, covered by an insurance pool into which employers, workers, and government will all contribute.

The Dodd and Stevens proposal would bring the United States more in line with the rest of the developed world, where paid leave is the norm. Since Bush would likely veto such legislation, it should be close to the top of the docket for the next president, regardless of his or her party. That would signal genuine support for family values and provide real relief for migraine patients like myself.

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