New Labor rules, expanding the provisions of the 2009 Family Medical Leave Act, are causing a stir in the military community. Yesterday, the Secretary of Labor and Mrs. Obama announced new rules which will allow all military family members to take up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave per year to take care of an injured servicemember for up to 5 years after leaving active duty and being part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
When asked, Kristle Helmuth, a friend who is the wife and chief caregiver of a wounded warrior and mother of three told me “I think it is absolutely a step in the right direction.” She is unable to return to work due to her husband’s condition, but thinks “… for those who were able to keep their jobs through the injury of a spouse or were able to return to work at least part time this will prove to be a very positive step.” Some spouses are questioning the five-year limit, since a severely injured servicemember will require care for much longer than five years, but most agree that this is a good start.
This is not just designed for spouses who take care of their wounded husband or wife — this will also affect the parents and siblings who are the chief caregiver of their severely wounded child. There are many moms and dads sitting at the bedside at Walter Reed/Bethesda, or helping their child through extensive physical therapy at Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio. Moms and dads who have dropped everything to rush to the bedside, who left jobs to be there.
For those who wonder why our wounded need these caregivers and cannot simply rely on the doctors and nurses, imagine a severely wounded soldier or Marine who has been diagnosed with a severe TBI (traumatic brain injury) or PTS (post-traumatic stress) and has severe cognitive impairments trying to negotiate the paperwork-intensive flurry of appointments or even attempting to live independently.
As another friend has often said, he will be doing one thing and then something strikes his fancy and he forgets he was washing the dishes, walks away and leaves the water running for hours.
Another provision will be welcomed by many military family members: unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks for other military events/appointments, and increase the amount of time an employee may take to spend with a loved one who is on R&R leave from five days up to 15 days. Since R&R is usually 15 days, this means the entire family can enjoy the two weeks that servicemember is home.
Since the dates are often not firm for R&R, it is very difficult for a spouse to be able to schedule to take vacation time; due to the multiple moves that military families make, most military spouses have not accrued enough vacation time to be able to take paid leave. It will be a welcome relief for military spouses to know that they have the protection of these rules during their spouse’s next R&R.
A strong concern voiced by Stacy Bannerman, Founder and Executive Director of The Sanctuary for Veterans & Families 501c3, who proposed and fought for the Oregon state and national legislative campaigns for military family leave, resulting in passage of Oregon H.B. 2744, and introduction of the federal Military Family Leave Act, was to wonder why the limitations of continuous employment of 25 hours per week for a year, size of company etc. After all, as she said: “I see that there’s still been little to nothing done to address the challenges faced by the millions of military family members who do not qualify for any sort of leave – paid or unpaid – under the FMLA, even though their loved ones are serving and experiencing the same burdens and injuries of service…”
Many people have heard the apocryphal stories of the mother who wants to go to her child’s farewell formation before deployment, but is told that if she does she could lose her job; the spouse who wants leave during the servicemember’s R&R, but faces losing her job if she takes it.
For many of us, attending a memorial service or other event from our unit is a necessary part of being a part of a team, of being part of the support network that we all depend upon. Since we find it hard to even find a job, knowing that we might be able to attend these ceremonies and functions without being in danger of losing our job, if we qualify, is a step in the right direction.
Photo credit: Department of Defense