Tester: Unpaid leave idea ‘common sense’

Great Falls Tribune

by Erin Kelly

WASHINGTON – A new Congress has brought renewed hope to a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who is leading efforts to pass federal legislation that would allow grieving parents to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from their jobs when their child dies.

“We believe we have the momentum to get congressional hearings and action on a bill,” said Barry Kluger, who has helped launch a petition drive that has gathered more than 50,000 signatures in support of the legislation.

Kluger is flying to Washington this week as Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., prepare to introduce the legislation Tuesday. It will be the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which the lawmakers hope to amend to allow time off for grieving parents.

The landmark law, signed by then-President Bill Clinton on Feb. 5, 1993, gives people up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or a sick parent, child or spouse. It also gives workers the right to take unpaid leave when they are seriously ill themselves.

However, the law, which applies to companies with 50 employees or more, contains no provision for parents to take extended time off when a child dies. Many working parents are offered only a standard three days off to plan and attend a funeral.

The Parental Bereavement Act of 2013 would expand the law to allow grieving parents to take unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks. The law defines children as minors under the age of 18.

“From my perspective, this is just common sense,” Tester said. “It helps parents after they lose a child, which in my opinion is the worst thing that can happen to a parent. This gives them some space to grieve. If they go back to work right away, they’re going to be a mess. Giving them some time off is not only the right thing to do, but I think it helps employers get their employees back in better shape.”

Expanding the law to cover grieving parents would affect a relatively small group of people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2 percent of annual U.S. deaths involve children up to age 19.

“No one who loses a child should have to worry about losing their job, too, simply for taking some time to grieve,” Israel said. “This legislation would allow parents to use the Family and Medical Leave Act just as they would if they suffered from a serious illness.”

Kluger, who lost his 18year-old daughter, Erica, in a car accident in 2001, was self-employed as an author and public relations executive and did not have to worry about losing his job while he mourned. But he has taken on the cause on behalf of other parents.

After writing articles and a book about grieving, Kluger was contacted by parents who told him about the problem. Kluger joined forces in 2011 with Kelly Farley, an Illinois father who lost two babies, to begin lobbying for federal legislation.

Tester and Israel introduced the bill in the last Congress, but the session ended without any action on the legislation.

“Last year, we were told nicely by congressional offices that we shouldn’t expect too much in an election year,” Kluger said. “Well, the election is over now, and we’re back. This time around, people seem much more willing to sit down and talk with us.”

Tester said he will push for hearings in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the first step in getting the bill to the Senate floor for a vote.

“I feel hopeful,” Tester said. “There’s always somebody out there who will oppose a bill, even one like this. But this really should be a bipartisan issue.” So far, no one has emerged publicly to oppose it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has long opposed the Family and Medical Leave Act as a burden on employers, but the group has taken no position on the amendment for grieving parents.

Kluger and Farley will be visiting key members of Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – this week to urge their support for the legislation. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., is the first Arizonan to commit to supporting the legislation.

Kluger, who recently gave up his public relations business to become the CEO of the MISS Foundation nonprofit group for grieving parents, said the memory of his vivacious daughter helps keep him going.

“I visit Erica’s grave, and I tell her what’s going on with this,” he said. “I’m not giving up.”