Anyone with common sense would agree that healthy families are essential to a robust economy. That's why it's worth celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act on February 5; one of the most significant advances for working families in our nation's history. In 1993, FMLA transformed the workplace and strengthened the American family by helping millions of workers secure job-protected leave to recuperate from a serious illness, give birth or adopt a new child, or take care of a seriously ill family member. Prior to FMLA, many people lost their jobs when these types of life events occurred. Workers have used FMLA more than 100 million times since its enactment during the Clinton administration.
Diane, a Denver teacher for ten years, was able to keep her job while battling cancer, thanks to the FMLA. The mother of a young son at the time, Diane said "I was able to take time off because I qualified for FMLA. Because I [also] had access to paid sick days, and a paid sick leave bank, I was able to get some wage replacement while I was out for three months." Diane was one of the fortunate ones, because she had access to FMLA and a paid sick leave bank that helped keep her financially afloat.
As critical as FMLA continues to be in protecting jobs and families, there are major gaps in the law. FMLA's biggest weakness is that it's unpaid. Seventy-eight percent of covered employees who need FMLA, don't take it because they can't afford to. And almost half of all workers lack job protection under FMLA because they haven't worked for their employer long enough, they're not scheduled for enough hours, or the size of their company is too small to make them eligible. The definition of "family" also needs to be expanded beyond spouses, children and parents so that the law is more relevant to real peoples' lives and caregiving responsibilities. Moreover, the reasons someone can take leave are severely limited in the law. In addition to improving FMLA, paid sick days need to be expanded to cover more routine illnesses and preventive care that aren't covered by FMLA.
Women in low-wage jobs are least likely to have any paid sick, personal, or vacation time at all, leaving one of the most vulnerable segments of our workforce unprotected. Ten percent of women who did take FMLA ended up on public assistance.
Sonya worked full-time as a medical interviewer for 11 years at a large hospital in Atlanta. During her pregnancy, she saved up money totaling two months of expenses to help her pay her bills while she was on FMLA. But when Sonya's son was born prematurely and placed in intensive care and she needed to take additional time off to care for her medically-fragile son, she used up her leave and savings pretty quickly. Even though Sonya had access to FMLA, she ended up on public assistance and struggled to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, many people are still forced to go to work when they need to be at home caring for themselves or their families. Americans agree that there's nothing more important than taking responsibility and caring for your family members. After 20 years, it's time to make FMLA more affordable and accessible. Our country needs healthy and economically secure families to help fuel a strong, thriving economy.
To read additional stories from hardworking Americans who have benefited from FMLA, as well as those unable to do so because of a lack of accessibility or affordability, click here. Their voices make a strong case for strengthening and improving FMLA so that more of us are able to balance responsibilities at home and on the job.