Reflections on 30 Years of the Family and Medical Leave Act
460 Million Uses, Tens of Millions Left Behind, and So Much Left To Do
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Feb. 3, 2023
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was the first law President Bill Clinton signed back in 1993 — a groundbreaking policy that helped establish a new workplace standard allowing some workers to take job-protected, unpaid time off to fulfill caregiving responsibilities. The White House marked the 30th anniversary of the FMLA with the return of President Clinton and President Biden and Vice President Harris’s recommitment to fighting for paid leave for all.
As we celebrate 30 years of this landmark legislation, the need for job-protected, comprehensive paid leave for all U.S. workers has only become even more necessary.
FMLA: One Step in America’s Long Journey to Paid Leave
I’ve spent the last 13 years of my professional life fighting for paid family and medical leave. Ten years ago, my preschooler joined me at a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the FMLA on Capitol Hill. Five years ago, we marked the 25th anniversary together at a FMLA birthday party hosted by the National Partnership for Women & Families — the organization that drafted and led the nine-year fight to pass the FMLA. And now, my toddler is in high school. While we’ve seen tremendous progress over the past decade, the United States still remains the only high-wealth country without any form of guaranteed paid leave.
The FMLA — the policy that President Clinton says people thank him for most — has now been used an estimated 463 million times by parents caring for a new child, family members caring for loved ones, military service members’ families, and people addressing their own serious health needs. But for the estimated 15 million people who used the FMLA in 2022 alone, there were nearly three million more who were ineligible for FMLA leave and left to worry about the consequences of taking time off without pay. And there were millions more still who were eligible for FMLA and needed it but simply could not afford to take unpaid leave — with hardships that forced them to go back to work too soon, take on debt, go without necessities, dip into savings, or worse.
The Long Road Towards National Paid Leave
The FMLA was always meant as a first step and not the last. It protects only about 56 percent of the workforce, and workers who are disproportionately excluded are also those most vulnerable to job loss and have the fewest resources to afford unpaid time off. This includes low-wage workers, workers with lower levels of education, Latine workers, single parents, rural workers, people in poverty, and immigrants.
The family members for whom one can provide care under the FMLA are limited to children under 18 and adult children who are incapable of caring for themselves, parents, and spouses. This too-narrow definition of “family member” does not reflect the full range of care needs families have as our population ages and it is culturally mismatched to the extended networks of family care that are commonly found in families of color, immigrant families, LGBTQIA families, and families with disabled loved ones.
In the past 10 years, there’s been substantial progress — but only for some people and in some states. And the places and people with the greatest needs have been left behind.
Access to paid family leave through employers’ voluntary programs has nearly doubled. But that doubling still means that three-quarters of all workers remain without dedicated paid time to care for a new child or a loved one. And access for the highest-wage workers is eight times higher than for the lowest-paid workers in our country.
Since the 20th anniversary of the FMLA ten years ago, nine states and the District of Columbia passed paid family and medical leave programs, joining California and New Jersey — bringing the total to 11 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, both California and New Jersey have improved on their laws to make them more reflective of what workers need. And within the next year, more states are poised to pass their own programs.
The Future of Paid Leave
A robust national paid leave program could have a major impact on women’s workforce participation and earnings, business productivity, economic growth, and the health and wellbeing of children and older adults. Some states have already set examples and provided evidence for the kind of national paid leave program the country needs: one that is sustainably funded; provides job protection to all workers; offers high levels of wage replacement for most workers to make leave affordable; and recognizes the full range of personal health and family caregiving needs.
In 2021, we saw a glimmer of hope for the future of national paid leave with the passage of the Build Back Better Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. But the care economy provisions, including paid leave, child care and home- and community-based services, were stripped from the final bill when the Senate passed a pared-down version of the package as the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022.
Members of Congress across party lines are still eager for action. The U.S. House of Representatives now has a Dads Caucus and a bipartisan working group on paid leave. And the two Senate committees that have jurisdiction over paid leave and the FMLA — the Senate Finance Committee and Senate HELP Committee — are chaired by longtime supporters of paid leave policies (Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, respectively). All of this provides hope for further action in this anniversary year.
Until Congress acts, people across the country will still be waiting and hurting. So as the country commemorates 30 years of the FMLA at the White House and the U.S. Department of Labor (watch live on February 6), we should mark the moment with calls to action for the government to invest in families and businesses by passing paid leave.
I hope we can build on the momentum of recent wins to make this the year the United States becomes a country that guarantees job-protected paid family and medical leave to every working person. Let’s find a new anniversary to celebrate — one that marks the advent of paid leave for all.
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Explainer: Paid and Unpaid Leave Policies in the United States (Better Life Lab, 2023): A short primer on private-sector workers' access and use of federal unpaid leave through the FMLA and an introduction to state programs.
Explainer: Paid Leave Benefits and Funding in the United States (Better Life Lab, 2023): A short primer on state paid family and medical leave programs in place that make paid leave benefits available to workers programs.
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