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An Interview with Gail Warren, Virginia State Law Librarian

In Custodia Legis - Wed, 04/22/2015 - 8:03am

The following is a guest post by Andrew Winston, a legal reference librarian in the Public Services Division of the Law Library of Congress.  Andrew interviews the Virginia State Law Librarian, Gail Warren.  We have previously interviewed another state law librarian, Jennifer Frazier, from Kentucky.

How long have you been the Virginia State Law Librarian, and what was the educational and professional path that led you to this position?

Gail Warren at the Supreme Court of Virginia

I’ve spent the past thirty-two and a half years in the same position!  My original career goal, dating back to when I was 14 or 15 years old, was to go to law school and become another Perry Mason, the mystery-solving criminal defense attorney.  At the time, my family saw this as a passing desire; none of the other members of my family had graduated from college.  My interest in law school only intensified, though, and after receiving my undergraduate degree from James Madison University in 1978, I enrolled the same year in the University of Richmond School of Law.

During my second year of law school, I began to realize the practice of law seemed like less of a match for my personality and temperament.  Fortunately, in the second semester of my first year of law school, I had started a work-study position with the law library at the University of Richmond and found I truly enjoyed working there.  I began by filing looseleaf services, then worked at the circulation desk, and before long was working an evening shift at the reference desk.  By the third year of law school, my mind was made up:  it was law librarianship, rather than the practice of law, that would be my professional focus.

Virginia State Law Library Reading Room

As graduation neared, the law school’s placement office sent me a job listing for a temporary one-year position at the Virginia State Law Library.  The position had been created to assist with the library’s move from a building on Broad Street in Richmond to its current home in the former Federal Reserve Bank building.  Before my position ended, the state law librarian at that time, Marjorie D. Kirtley, announced her retirement.  I applied for the position of state law librarian, was interviewed by the chief justice and other justices of the Supreme Court of Virginia, and after receiving confirmation that I had passed the February 1982 Virginia bar exam, was appointed to serve as state law librarian, effective September 1, 1982.  At that time, I had not yet studied library science.  As a condition of my appointment, in the spring of 1982 I enrolled in the graduate library science program at Catholic University and received a master’s in library science in 1987.

What is the primary mission of the Virginia State Law Library?

As an integral unit of the Supreme Court of Virginia, the Virginia State Law Library seeks to provide the highest quality customer-oriented library service that will contribute to the mission of the Supreme Court of Virginia, the Court of Appeals of Virginia and the legal community.

Who are your patrons at the Virginia State Law Library, and what sorts of services do you provide to them?

You can find a formal listing of the categories of patrons who can use the State Law Library in Section 42.1-64 of the Virginia Code:

The Governor and other state officers at the seat of government, the Reporter of the Supreme Court, members of the General Assembly and an individual designated by a member of the General Assembly to perform legal research, judges of courts, and practicing attorneys in good standing, and such other persons as the Supreme Court shall designate[.]

Our primary user group includes justices of the Supreme Court of Virginia, judges of the Court of Appeals of Virginia, and their respective staffs.  We perform complete, in-depth original research for our primary users.  We maintain chambers collections of legal materials for these appellate judges in twenty-six offices across the state.  Our library houses the archives of the Supreme Court of Virginia and we are responsible for an ongoing oral history program.  We also sponsor a book discussion group for court staff, which meets regularly when personnel will be in Richmond for court sessions.

The court allows paralegals, law students, and librarians at other law libraries to use the Virginia State Law Library.  Although we cannot perform research for members of the public, we do respond to telephone calls and emails from the public with suggestions on how and where they might perform their own legal research, and information about sources of Virginia legal information, both print and online. We also provide some services for attorneys, including citation-checking and fee-based document delivery.

Do you work closely with the Supreme Court of Virginia?

As a member of the Supreme Court of Virginia’s management team, I report directly to the chief justice. Among other things, I present a summary of the State Law Library’s activities to the justices each year at the court’s annual retreat.  I also serve on Virginia’s Access to Justice Commission, which is co-chaired by one of the justices.  As I mentioned earlier, library staff perform significant original research for the justices and their judicial law clerks.  We also provide an annual orientation for the court’s incoming clerks, as well as various training sessions during the year.

Please tell us a little about the Supreme Court of Virginia building in which the library is housed. Does it have any particularly noteworthy features?

The Supreme Court of Virginia’s building was originally commissioned for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.  The six story building, featuring a colonnade of Ionic columns above a high and simple granite base with low, projecting side wings, was designed by the Baltimore architectural firm of Sill, Buckler & Fenhagen.  The main structure was completed in 1921 and the building was expanded three times during its service as a Federal Reserve Bank.  The Commonwealth of Virginia purchased the building in 1977, and in 1978 began renovations for its use as a courthouse.  We moved into the building in November 1981.

The courtroom foyer and courtroom of the Supreme Court of Virginia building display oil portraits of almost all of the justices who have served on the Supreme Court of Virginia.  You can view these portraits online.  That website also includes biographies of past and present justices of the court, and audio recordings and transcripts of oral history interviews of retired justices, 2007-2011.

The Supreme Court’s courtroom was originally the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond’s banking room.  The courtroom’s walls are of Indiana limestone, and the Doric columns along the walls and behind the bench are of Pink Tennessee limestone.  The court’s bench is made of mahogany.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the room is its ceiling–although that is not immediately apparent.  During the renovation of the building, to accommodate needed duct work, a second, false ceiling was constructed below the true ceiling of the room.  The original ceiling was an adaption of Renaissance design with Greek detail and carved female heads are placed along the top edge of the walls, supporting the clerestory cornice.  The Federal Reserve records indicate the heads were carved after a copy “of an archaic Greek head found at Athens.”  Unfortunately, the only way one can now view the original ceiling is through mechanical access doors in the law library.

Photo from 1921 provided to the Virginia State Law Library by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. This room is now the courtroom of the Supreme Court of Virginia, shown before it was renovated. The ornate ceiling, now hidden by the false ceiling described in the interview, is visible.

What do you know about your predecessor Virginia State Law Librarians?

Although a court library has served the Supreme Court since 1846, the position of “State Law Librarian” was not established until 1902.  Before 1902, the clerk of the court administered the legal collection.  There have been five state law librarians before me.

  • William Wallace Scott served from 1902 until 1929, when he died in office. Scott was a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and served as state librarian from 1884 until his appointment as the first State Law Librarian in 1902.
  • Lloyd Montague Richards served from 1929 until his retirement in 1961. Richards began his service to the Supreme Court of Virginia as the custodian of the court’s building in 1910.  He studied law taking night classes then offered by the T.C. Williams School of Law (now the University of Richmond School of Law) while working at the State Law Library, passed the Virginia bar in 1919, and became the state law librarian in 1929.  While serving as state law librarian, he maintained a law practice and was active in local politics.
  • Hubert Elmer Kiser served from 1961 until his death in 1966. A graduate of Emory and Henry, he served for twenty-four years as the Clerk of the Circuit Court in Tazewell County, Virginia, before becoming the state law librarian.
  • Walter S. Griggs, Jr. served from 1966 until 1968, when he stepped down to pursue a career in higher education, obtaining a master’s degree from the University of Richmond and an Ed.D from the College of William & Mary. He is now an associate professor of business at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia and the author of several books on Richmond history and moose.
  • Marjorie Duke Kirtley, my immediate predecessor, served from 1968 until her retirement in 1982. Kirtley was responsible for the designation of the State Law Library as a Federal Depository Library in 1974.  She also planned and oversaw the library’s move from the former courthouse on Broad Street to its current location on Ninth Street in Richmond.

Have you received any memorable questions that you may discuss?

We have researched a number of interesting questions for the supreme court justices, appellate court judges, and their staffs over the years.  One that springs to mind is a request to investigate the origins of the song “Unchained Melody.”  In recent years, we have also performed quite a bit of historical and genealogical research on early courts and judges in Virginia.

Do you have a rare books collection?

Virginia State Law Library Stacks

The State Law Library does not maintain a true rare books collection.  Our collection does, however, include a number of items that would be considered rare books, such as 17th and 18th century legal treatises, particularly Virginia legal treatises.  Unfortunately, years ago a number of these rare volumes were rebound in buckram, a stiff cloth that is used, among other things, for binding reference books.  (Although the buckram binding has a protective purpose, I would have preferred to maintain these books in their original bindings.)  Our rare books include a 1586 edition of Sir Robert Brooke’s “La Graunde Abridgement,” George Webb’s “Virginia Justice,” printed in 1736, and a 1682 edition of Michael Dalton’s “The Countrey Justice.”

What advice do you have for aspiring law librarians?

Especially today, I believe it is necessary to both practice patience in order to find the right opportunity, and also be prepared to act to take advantage of good opportunities when they arise.  Find a role model or a mentor, and be willing to invest time and effort to make the most of that relationship.  It is also very worthwhile to volunteer with professional associations, whether at the local, state, regional, and/or national level.  The experience you obtain doing professional association work will enhance the value you bring to your library and employer, and enable you to develop your professional network.

Categories: Research & Litigation

Top Tips for Your Organization to Go Green (Part 2)

Tech Soup - Tue, 04/21/2015 - 6:21pm

How can organizations best implement greener practices given limited funds and time? Below are five easy things you can do right now to green your organization and make a big impact on your environmental footprint.

Easy Ways for Your Organization to Go Green (Part 1)

Tech Soup - Tue, 04/21/2015 - 6:20pm

So we've all heard that green is good, but how can nonprofits and libraries implement greener practices given limited funds and time? Here are five easy things you can do right now to make a big impact on your organization's environmental footprint.

Tennessee, Kansas Also Get Warning: Expand Medicaid Or Risk Hospital Funds

Kaiser Health News - Tue, 04/21/2015 - 4:36pm

Add Tennessee and Kansas to the list of states that have been warned by the Obama administration that failing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act could jeopardize special funding to pay hospitals and doctors for treating the poor.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services confirmed Tuesday that it gave officials in those states the same message delivered to Texas and Florida about the risk to funding for so-called “uncompensated care pools” — Medicaid money that helps pay the cost of care for the uninsured.

The letter to Florida officials last week drew the ire of Republican Gov. Rick Scott who said the federal government should not link the $1.3 billion in uncompensated care funding with the state’s decision not to expand Medicaid. He has threatened a lawsuit against the Obama administration if it cuts off the funding, which is set to expire June 30.

This KHN story can be republished for free (details).

The Texas funding is scheduled to end in September 2016. Officials there have also expressed indignation at what they perceive to be coercive pressure and talked about joining Scott’s lawsuit.

Kansas Medicaid officials said they received about $45 million this year in federal funding for their state uncompensated care program, which began  in 2013 and is slated to continue through 2017.

Tennessee Medicaid spokewoman Kelly Gunderson said her state gets over $750 million in federal funding to cover uncompensated care.

The first message was delivered in an April 14 letter from Vikki Wachino, acting director of the Center For Medicaid and CHIP Services, to Florida Medicaid officials. She said that expanding Medicaid coverage is a better way to help patients and providers get access to health care than an “overreliance on supplemental payments” to providers through a program called the Low Income Pool, or LIP.

“Medicaid expansion would reduce uncompensated care in the state, and therefore have an impact on the [Low-Income Pool], which is why the state’s expansion status is an important consideration in our approach regarding extending the LIP beyond June,” she wrote.

CMS spokesman Aaron Albright said Tuesday the Obama administration wants to apply similar principles to all the states that receive such funding, whether or not they expanded Medicaid.

“We’ve been in contact with those states that have uncompensated care pools and reiterated that we look forward to an ongoing dialogue to develop a solution that works for patients, hospitals and the taxpayer,” he said. “We told states that our letter to Florida articulates key principles CMS will use in considering proposals regarding uncompensated care pool programs in their states, but that discussions with each state will also take into account state-specific circumstances.”

CMS officials confirmed they have also reached out to states that expanded Medicaid about the future criteria for the funding, including California, Massachusetts, Arizona, Hawaii and New Mexico.

Each state has negotiated its own program with the federal government to pay providers for treating the uninsured. But the programs differ in scope, funding and length of time remaining.

Judy Solomon of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the special federal funding that some states negotiated for uncompensated care was never supposed to last indefinitely. The need for the funding changed dramatically as millions of people gained health coverage under the health law, she said.

“These demonstration programs are at the discretion of the Secretary of HHS and there is no entitlement to any state or providers to continue these funding arrangements when they expire,” Solomon said, adding, “The need for uncompensated care funding is changing dramatically.”

Arizona Medicaid spokeswoman Monica Higuera Coury said her state, which did expand Medicaid, was also told that the special funding would begin to be phased out this year. Arizona receives a maximum $137 million a year to offset uncompensated care costs at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.  “We are looking forward to working with …CMS to put a transition plan together that moves us away from total reliance on the [funding] while still protecting this very important safety net for our children,” she said.

Some experts were surprised the Obama administration linked Medicaid expansion to the special funding because of the potential legal issues.

“No one would be shocked to hear that states don’t need the money because uncompensated care has dropped … but saying you are taking away this money because you are not expanding is trickier,” said Charlene Frizzera, a senior advisor at consulting firm Leavitt Partners.  “People are shocked that CMS has done that.”

But Joan Alker, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center For Children and Families, said the administration was simply acting as a steward of taxpayer money.

“I wouldn’t call it hardball, but rather responsible policy and fiscal oversight to ensure that federal tax dollars are spent in the most effective way,” she said. “When coverage is available to reduce the number of uninsured people  … and states refuse those funds, why should the federal government provide them with unauthorized funding to put a Band-Aid on it?”

Categories: Health Care

Last But Not Least: Man With Muscular Dystrophy Finishes Marathon At 5 A.M.

CommonHealth (WBUR) - Tue, 04/21/2015 - 11:57am
[Watch on YouTube]

An inspirational Venezuelan man has become the last finisher of this year’s Boston Marathon, crossing the finish line about 20 hours after he started.

Maickel Melamed finished at about 5 a.m. Tuesday, after battling torrential downpours and thunderstorms for the last few miles.

The 39-year-old Melamed has a form of muscular dystrophy which severely impairs his mobility.

He was accompanied along the race by volunteers and was met at the finish line by dozens of cheering friends and supporters.

Melamed has previously participated in marathons in Chicago, New York, Berlin and Tokyo, but said Boston is special because it’s the city where his parents brought him as a child for treatment.

Please check back for an update today from WBUR’s Fred Thys, who’s covering the press conference at which Boston Mayor Marty Walsh awards Maickel Melamed a medal.

Categories: Health Care

Francis Scott Key: the Lawyer-Poet

In Custodia Legis - Tue, 04/21/2015 - 9:06am

Both law and poetry require a fluid grasp of language and a critical need for precision and economy with words; possessing these skills can be the key to making one person successful in both endeavors. There are a few times in history when well-known poets started their professional lives in the law (John Donne, Archibald MacLeish), and there are a few instances when good lawyers have been poets on the side, such as Wallace Stevens and Francis Scott Key.

While Stevens is famous for his poetry, the average American might be surprised to know of Key as a poet–if, in fact, they know much about him at all (native Marylanders excepted). Not only did Key write his most famous poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” now known to all Americans as “the Star Spangled Banner,” he wrote verse throughout his life. He was a devout man who had almost elected to be an Anglican priest, and so many of his poems are religious and include a few hymns and translations of psalms. He penned “Song” (also known as “When the Warrior Returns”) a patriotic poem predating “Defence of Fort M’Henry” by nine years that is very similar in topic and style. He wrote elegies and brief humorous pieces. It seems he had never intended them for publication but did hand them round to friends for their comfort and amusement.

After Key’s death in 1843, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney–Key’s brother-in-law, friend, and famous Maryland lawyer–collected Key’s poems into one volume and arranged to have them published in 1857, as Poems of the late Francis S. Key, Esq. Thanks to Taney’s wish to memorialize Key, we can learn more about the straight arrow who wrote the national anthem, and that is probably the main reason modern readers will enjoy reading this brief volume.

It is unlikely that Key will gain much of a renaissance as a poet, as his poetry was very much a piece of the popular culture of his time. Regardless, some of his work is still being used today. Key’s poems provide the lyrics for songs included in some modern church hymnals. Legal scholars will likely enjoy Key’s “Petition for a Habeas Corpus to the Honorable James Sewall Morsell…”  

“May it please your honor to hear the petition
Of a poor old mare in a miserable condition,
Who has come this cold night to beg that your honor
Will consider her ease and take pity upon her.
Her master has turned her out in the street,
And the stones are too hard to lie down on, or eat;
Entertainment for horses she sees every where,
But, alas! there is none, as it seems, for a mare.
She has wandered about, cold, hungry, and weary,
And can’t even get in the Penitentiary.”

When Key was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Morsell was a judge in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia,  and he was a friend of Key. When Morsell’s wife Mary Ann Morsell died, Key wrote a poem memorializing her. It came to be popularly known as “In a Little While,” and so moved the family that they had a shorter version of the poem incised on her gravestone at Zion Episcopal Church in West Virginia:

“A little while”, this narrow house prepared,
By grief and love, shall hold the blessed dead;
“A little while”, and she who sleeps below
Shall hear the call to rise and live forever;
A Little While, and ye who pour your tears
On this cold grave, shall awaken in your own.
And ye shall see her, in her robes of light,
And waken in her triumph.

According to Key’s biographer Marc Leepson in What So Proudly We Hailed, Key occasionally attended meetings of the Delphian Club as a young man and wrote at least one poem for the club, although anything else he wrote for them seems lost to history. He composed poems to court his wife before they married. And then there is his poem to his wife, “Note to Mrs. Key,” which one can enjoy for its ordinary humanity as well as its faint thematic echo of William Carlos William’s “This Is Just to Say“, even if its rhyme is clunky:

“Mrs. Key will hereby see
That Judges two or three
And one or two more
So as to make exactly four
Will dine with her to-day;
And as they cannot stay,
Four o’clock the hour must be
For dinner, and six for tea
And toast and coffee.”

Of course, most Americans know the story of the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Key scribbled the poem on the back of an envelope while witnessing the Battle of Baltimore from a British ship on the Patapsco River. The day after the battle, someone–many stories credit Judge Joseph Nicholson–took Key’s verses to a printer in Baltimore who printed bills and broadsheets of the poem. In the coming months it came to be called “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and was set to the notoriously difficult-to-sing English drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” It swiftly was adopted as a popular patriotic tune over hundred years before Congress officially named it the national anthem in 1931. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the poem for which Key is best remembered, mainly for the historical significance behind it rather than its art. And it bears the additional charm of having extra “O’s” in it for Baltimore sports fans. His flowery poem has come to be remembered in his home state as a source of native pride.

Poetry Month is the perfect reminder to revisit a favorite poem or poet or find a new favorite to enjoy. Studying a homegrown poet like Key, with his deep ties to early American history and law, gives one a greater appreciation for the poetry in the anthem of the United States, and the strong inspiration that he had to write it.

Fort McHenry, where the “Star-Spangled Banner” was inspired by a battle in the War of 1812. Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Carol Highsmith.) (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,





Categories: Research & Litigation

What’s At Stake In The Supreme Court Obamacare Case

Kaiser Health News - Tue, 04/21/2015 - 5:00am

The Affordable Care Act mandates that all Americans get health coverage or pay a penalty. To help people pay for that insurance, the federal government subsidizes insurance premiums for millions of Americans.

In just a couple of months, the Supreme Court will rule in a major case concerning those subsidies. The question is whether the law allowed for them across the country or just in the minority of states that set up their own insurance exchanges. A decision to take away those subsidies could leave millions without insurance.

Attorney Tom Goldstein, who runs SCOTUSblog, has been following the case and says the law is ambiguous. “This is a real, serious question,” he says. “The law doesn’t tell you whether Congress wanted to limit the subsidies only to those states where the state itself went to the trouble of setting up the exchange or whether Congress wanted everybody who needed the help to be able to get the subsidies.”

Louisiana is a state where a lot of people could be affected. It runs and about 186,000 people there have used the site to buy health insurance. Nearly 90 percent of them in Louisiana get subsidies.

We traveled to the state to interview many of these people who could lose subsidies if the Supreme Court rules against them. Here are our first three profiles:

Carlton Scott, 63, at his house in Prairieville, Louisiana. Scott is too young for Medicare and Louisiana hasn’t expanded Medicaid, so Obamacare was a good option for him (Photo by Jeff Cohen/WNPR).

Carlton Scott

Carlton Scott is 63. Sitting at his kitchen table at the house he owns in Prairieville, near Baton Rouge, he says he worked at a chemical plant for 30 years before he retired. He found out last fall that his company was scaling back his retiree benefits.

“’Round October they wrote me a letter saying, in December we’ll no longer be covered,” he says.

That included his health insurance, which he was really counting on.

“I thought they would take me to my grave. I really thought the company would take me to my grave,” he says. When it went away, “That pissed me off. Because, god——, I been through 30 years and you come with this bullsh–? That pissed me off.”

This story is part of a partnership that includes WNPR, NPR and Kaiser Health News. It can be republished for free. (details)

And he was in a bind. At 63 he is too young for Medicare and Louisiana hasn’t expanded Medicaid. Obamacare was a good option for him.

He signed up for a BlueCross BlueShield of Louisiana plan. He says he pays $266.99 per month, “to the penny.” Like a lot of people, he could rattle off the exact amount. Money is tight and people track their expenses carefully.

Scott could be in a position to lose his subsidy and his health insurance. He says if he had to pay more, he could for a while. He gets $2,600 a month between Social Security and his pension. But he worries about his friends.

“Everybody don’t make the same amount of money, that’s what I’m saying. I got a friend of mine, stay down the street. He gets Social Security and pension, too. But it’s not as much as mine, not half as [much].”

When asked about the case in front of the Supreme Court, he laughs.

“They all got insurance, too. I guarantee you that. They all got insurance.”

He says the court should, “Leave it like it is. I mean, what are people going to do? Get sick, go to the hospital, ‘I don’t have insurance. Won’t you please help me anyway?’ Hell, no. That ain’t going to happen,” he says.

LaTasha Perry

LaTasha Perry is at the other end of her career. She’s 31 and works at the front desk of a community health center in Plaquemine, La. She got covered under Obamacare because it was cheaper than paying the penalty.

LaTasha Perry, 31, works at a community health center in Plaquemine, Louisiana. Perry says getting insured under Obamacare was cheaper than paying the penalty (Photo by Jeff Cohen/WNPR).

She says her children have Medicaid as their health coverage. Her job offers health insurance, but she says she can’t afford to buy it.

“I would pay at least $100 a month for the insurance here,” she says. “With my subsidy, I pay $13.”

Now she’s got money left over for necessities: “Food for my kids. I’m a single parent, so it’s hard.”

Charles Dalton

Charles Dalton wanted health coverage. He’s 64 and after he retired as a paramedic, he didn’t have health insurance. Then he got sick. He says his condition is too personal to talk about. “I’m disabled,” he says. “But I would be totally incapacitated without seeing this doctor.”

Charles Dalton, 64, a retired paramedic says losing his insurance was not an option (Photo by Jeff Cohen/WNPR).

The Affordable Care Act says insurers can’t take into account whether somebody is sick, like they used to. That made insurance unavailable or unaffordable for many sick people. And now — with subsidies — Dalton says he pays $149 a month. He hopes the Supreme Court doesn’t touch the subsidies.

“They’re just going to make a difficult situation more difficult,” he explains. “Because of the Affordable Care Act, it’s helping me to be able to make this existence more livable. You’re not asking for a handout. But if you get a helping hand, the last thing you need is for it to be snatched out from under you.”

Regardless of the politics, there are a lot of people like Dalton who could feel that the Supreme Court would be taking something away. Goldstein of SCOTUSblog says the court has a tough job.

“This is a case that requires the justices to be both lawyers and try and look at the words that Congress used, but also to struggle with the human dimension of the case,” he says. “The consequences are so real and so powerful that, if the challengers win here — and maybe they deserve to win, maybe it’s what Congress intended — but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that millions of people would lose access to health insurance.”

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes WNPR, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Categories: Health Care

Advocates Push For Paid Medical, Family Leave

Kaiser Health News - Tue, 04/21/2015 - 5:00am

It’s been more than 20 years since passage of the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time for medical or family reasons without losing their jobs. Some advocates and politicians say it’s time to plug a big hole in the law by requiring that workers get paid while they’re on leave. But the measure faces stiff opposition from some small business and other groups.

Saying the reality for many families is that both parents must work, President Barack Obama has pushed for paid family leave, calling it an “economic necessity” in his January State of the Union address. He proposed $2.2 billion in next year’s budget to help five states get paid leave programs up and running, and an additional $35 million for states to conduct planning and start-up activities.

Meanwhile, Democrats have reintroduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act that would create a national paid leave program that would cover two-thirds of people’s wages for up to 60 days annually. With Republicans in control of Congress, however, there’s little chance it will pass.

Supporters say that many workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave and others aren’t eligible because they work for small employers. The law allows workers to take time off to care for a newborn or adopted child, or if they or a family member has a serious health condition. But it doesn’t apply to companies with fewer than 50 workers, and workers have to have worked for at least a year and logged at least 1,250 hours in the previous year to qualify for the benefit.

More from this series


Only 13 percent of workers had access to paid family leave in 2013, according to the Department of Labor’s 2014 national compensation survey. Meanwhile, 59 percent were eligible for unpaid leave in 2012, according to DOL.

State experiences with paid family leave may provide guidance for a national paid family leave law. Since passage of the federal law, four states have enacted such programs.

Three of them — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – fund the programs entirely by withholding employees’ wages. The programs are administered by states’ unemployment insurance agencies in conjunction with temporary disability insurance programs, according to human resources consultant Mercer. (Washington state has a paid leave program on the books but it has not been implemented because legislators haven’t approved funds.)

This KHN story can be republished for free (details).

Rhode Island protects workers’ jobs if they take family leave, while the other two state programs do not. The federal law offers job protection for those working for large employers, but does not help those at small firms although other state laws may offer some protection.

California’s program is well established after more than a decade. It allows workers up to six weeks of leave annually at 55 percent of their weekly pay, up to a cap of $1,104 weekly in 2015.

When her children, now aged 5 and 2, were born, Allison Guevara took paid time off each time from her half-time job as a field representative for the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union that represents librarians and lecturers at the University of California.

Guevara, 36, says that getting just 55 percent of her salary might have been problematic, but she was able to negotiate with her employer to use accrued vacation and sick time to make up the other 45 percent of her pay.

Altogether, she took off at least three months with pay for each baby. Her husband, who works for the city of Santa Cruz, was not so lucky. The law typically doesn’t apply to public sector employees.

“The time off was very necessary,” says Guevara. In addition to bonding with her kids, “breastfeeding was very difficult with my first one, it took eight weeks to get that going.”

Guevara stumbled upon the information about her paid leave options by accident.  That’s not surprising. A survey conducted last fall for the California Center for Research on Women and Families found that just 36 percent of Californians knew about the state’s paid leave program, a decline from three years earlier when 43 percent said they knew about the law.

“Those who know about it are those who disproportionately work for employers who already do it,” says Vicki Shabo, a vice president at the National Partnership for Women and Families. “That leaves out many lower-paid workers.”

California employers are generally positive about the paid family leave law, according to a study prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor last year. Ninety percent of employers in a 2010 survey said the law had either a positive effect on productivity, profit and morale, or it had no effect.

California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have built their programs around existing short-term paid disability program infrastructures; only five states have such disability programs in place, says Catherine Stamm, a senior associate at Mercer.

“It’s not as difficult or momentous for these employers,” Stamm says.

Under the Democrats’ bill, workers and employers would split the cost of the program, which would be administered by the Social Security administration.

But that’s a problem for small business owners, says Jack Mozloom, national media director for the National Federation of Independent Business, a trade group. Many of their members have fewer than 10 employees, Mozloom says, and if someone’s out on leave, it’s likely they have to hire a temporary worker or pay someone overtime to do the job.

Financing a paid leave program would “represent a real expense that some of them cannot absorb,” he says.

“When it’s mandated, it puts them in a hole.”

Please contact Kaiser Health News to send comments or ideas for future topics for the Insuring Your Health column.

Categories: Health Care


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