Family leave rules tighten; military families eligible

— -- The government is set Monday to unveil a significant shakeup to a federal law that lets more than 77 million eligible employees across the USA take unpaid time off to care for family medical needs.

The new provisions, which follow two years of wrangling, institute first-ever leave for military family members and establish new rules on how employees must notify employers about their need for time off. It goes into effect on Jan. 16.

Some key changes:

•Leave for military. Eligible military family members will for the first time be able to take up to 26 weeks off in a 12-month period to care for a service member with a serious duty-related injury. An estimated 130,000 family members a year are expected to take advantage of the leave.

Leave also will be granted to family members of those in the National Guard and Reserves.

•Doctor visits. The change clarifies rules on how often and when employees must see doctors. Previously, the law required employees to see a doctor twice during their leave.

The new rules stipulate that those two doctor visits must take place within 30 days of beginning leave. The first visit must occur within the first seven days.

•Paid leave. Under new rules, employees who use paid leave at the same time as family leave must follow employer rules on paid time off.

That means employees can't just take vacation time to get paid time off during an unplanned leave; instead, they must follow company time-off rules.

•Leave requests. Before, employees could notify employers of plans to take family leave two days after their first absence. Now, an employee must follow the employer's usual call-in rules for reporting an absence, except in emergencies. That may mean advance or same-day notice.

•Medical certification. An employer — but not a direct supervisor — can contact an employee's health care provider, with the worker's consent because of medical privacy rules, to verify a medical condition is authentic. Previously, employers had to have a medical professional contact the doctor.

The regulations don't tackle some thorny issues, such as providing paid family leave, because they require legislative action.

But the changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act are being unveiled at the trailing end of the Bush presidency. Undoing any of the provisions once President-elect Barack Obama takes office would mean restarting the exhaustive process of public comment. Obama has urged expanded coverage, such as allowing the law to apply to employers with 25 or more employees. Now, it's those with 50 or more.

Several of the changes are being met with blistering criticism from some employee groups who say workers will have less access to the 12 weeks of job-protected leave for the birth or adoption of a child, care of a close family member with serious medical problems, or time off for employee health conditions.

"We're troubled by any change that would make it more difficult for people to take leave when they need it. That's our primary concern," says Jocelyn Frye, with the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Randel Johnson, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called the changes significant, and said they'll curb employee abuses.