Rights before lawsuits

Staff WritersMay 29, 2003 

Little effect is likely to be felt in North Carolina from a Supreme Court ruling this week letting state workers sue their employers for violating a federal law guaranteeing time off for illness or to care for a relative.

The state legislature enacted protections two years ago allowing workers to sue in state court over grievances under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Lawmakers also enacted a new benefit for state workers last year, going beyond the Family and Medical Leave Act by allowing up to 52 weeks of unpaid leave in the event of a family emergency or catastrophic illness.

The federal law, enacted by Congress a decade ago, requires employers over a certain size to allow workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family emergencies as well as maternity leaves. Workers are guaranteed their jobs or an equivalent one upon their return.

By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court rejected a claim by the state of Nevada that its constitutional immunity prohibits a state worker from suing over the law. The vote was viewed as a departure for the court.

Three years ago, justices ruled that state workers may not sue in federal court under the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

It was that ruling that prompted the legislature here to enact additional legal protection for aggrieved state workers.

And now, workers will be able to sue in either state or federal court.

That's not likely to clog the courts with claims. Few grievances have been filed, even internally, since the legislature enacted the protections two years ago, said Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

"North Carolina is a leader in the effort to be family friendly for its state employees," Cope said. "They recognize the value of how much the family contributes to the well-being of all North Carolinians."

Ballantine & money

In anticipation of a formal announcement on Saturday, Sen. Patrick Ballantine, a Wilmington Republican, has been raising money for his campaign for governor, including a fund-raiser this week at the Carolina Country Club in Raleigh.

The list of hosts, those who have contributed at least $1,000, included local GOP notables such as K.D. Kennedy, Tom Ellis, Paul Coble and Peter Hans.

There was at least one Democrat in the mix, too -- Dana Cope, of the State Employees Association.

Cope is listed with his wife, Melinda, and he said she is the big Ballantine fan.

"We are supporting his bid," Cope said. "My wife is the one that really likes him. He's a personal friend of ours."

When Ballantine makes his announcement at the state Republican Party convention, he will be headed to a primary with at least three other candidates who have already announced.

They are George Little, an insurance agent from Southern Pines; Dan Barrett, a Davie County commissioner; and Richard Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor.

Four to watch

The centrist Democratic Leadership Council has added several North Carolina political figures to their list of "100 New Democrats to Watch."

Making the list were state Attorney General Roy Cooper, state Treasurer Richard Moore, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and state Sen. Eric Reeves of Raleigh.

By staff writers Amy Gardner and Lynn Bonner. Gardner can be reached at 829-8902 or agardner@newsobserver.com.

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