By Fran Haas
Earlier this year, Senator Harkin announced his intention to retire after the completion of his term in 2015. Harkin has wielded a great deal of influence over the enactment of a number of high-profile federal employment laws. This is largely due to his past membership, and now chairmanship, of the powerful Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, which is responsible for many key employment laws. Senator Harkin regards his signature achievement to be the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").
Senator Harkin has a number of proposed employment laws on his pre-retirement bucket list. One of the most significant is the Healthy Families Act ("HFA"), which Senators Harkin and DeLauro reintroduced to Congress on March 20, 2013. The HFA, in its current proposed form, would constitute a game-changing employment law for employers—it would require employers to offer up to 56 hours of paid sick leave a year to qualified employees. Here is a summary of how the HFA would work:
- Which employers would be covered? Employers with 15 or more employees would be covered by the HFA.
- How would paid sick leave accrue? Paid sick leave would accrue at the rate of one hour per thirty hours worked, for a total of 56 hours (or seven days) a year.
- What if the employer already offers paid sick leave? As long as the employer offers sick leave that meets guidelines of the HFA, the employer's existing sick leave policy would be compliant.
- What conditions qualify an employee for "sick" leave? Short-term illnesses, such as a cold, the flu, or a virus, would be covered. Sick leave would also be available to allow an employee to care for a sick family member and obtain preventive or diagnostic treatment. Additionally, employees who are victims of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault would qualify to use paid sick leave under the HFA.
- Would employers be able to ask an employee to provide a doctor's note to use sick leave? Yes, but only if the employee requests sick leave for three or more consecutive days.
- How would this impact leave available under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA")? HFA leave would be available in addition to leave available under the FMLA.
- Who would qualify as a member of the employee's "family" under the HFA? The HFA would define "family" to include any individual "whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship." The legislation is intended to include domestic partners and same-sex couples.
- How likely is it that the HFA will pass? Only time will tell if the HFA will become law. Senator Harkin had attempted and failed to pass the HFA several times before. With Senator Harkin's impending retirement, however, we can expect a stronger push for this legislation before the end of his term in 2015.
Other items on Senator Harkin's employment law bucket list include pension reform and his recent bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10. We will continue to keep our eye on the HFA and other developments in employment law.