Today marks the 20th anniversary of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, the first bill President Clinton signed into law, ensuring unpaid time off for workers at businesses with more than 50 employees. Since its implementation, more than 50 million workers have taken FMLA leave to care for newborns, seriously ill family members, or themselves – without the fear of losing their jobs.
Calls for a comprehensive family leave policy in the United States date back at least to 1942, when the Women’s Bureau recommended that employed women have six weeks of prenatal leave and two months leave following childbirth. (Even before that, six other countries had already instituted protected maternity leave with guaranteed wage replacement by 1919.)
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was a huge step forward for moms, dads, families, and those with serious medical conditions like cancer. Before FMLA, employees were rarely able to take leave to welcome a new baby or care for a seriously ill family member. Family leave decisions were determined by collective bargaining agreements, a patchwork of state laws, and individual employer decisions. It was not unusual for an employee to find their job had been filled upon returning from leave.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1992 and 1993, private and public sector businesses of all sizes only allowed 37 percent of their employees who requested leave to take unpaid maternity leave, and 28 percent to take paternity leave. Millions of people were forced into an impossible decision between keeping their jobs or caring for their families.
Under FMLA, an employee can take leave to care for a family member facing a serious health condition (or their own serious health condition), as well as to welcome a newborn or newly-adopted baby. Women are no longer lawfully fired for becoming pregnant, and the fear of losing a job to care for a child has dramatically declined. We can and should be proud of that.
Yet the FMLA Act only provides unpaid leave for those in businesses with 50+ employees -that leaves out forty-five percent of the workforce. Those who work for small businesses are not eligible for FMLA leave, and many more are simply unable to afford it.
Today, the United States is one of only four countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee workers any paid time off whatsoever. As a result, the Family and Medical Leave Act has been limited in its reach. On the 20th anniversary of FMLA, we should celebrate an important milestone for the country – but with the understanding that there is much more to be done for working people and families.
We need workplace policies that match the realities of today’s workforce, and leaders who recognize the daily balancing act for so many working middle-class families in today’s demanding economy. Perhaps today, on the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, we can begin a new dialogue about how to support our middle-class, working families that are the engine of our economy – and hopefully not just by talking about our belief in family values, but by demonstrating that those values do not end at the workplace door.
By EOI Intern Marcus Sweetser