FMLA Was A Hard-Fought Victory, But There's Much More to Do
Today we celebrate 20 years of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This ground-breaking legislation, signed into law by President Clinton, sent a powerful statement across the country about the role our government has in strengthening families. It said loud and clear that above all -- family comes first!
Historically, this has been the labor unions’ mantra. What are living wages, health care, retirement security and paid leave but a robust package of economic security for families? In this blog carnival, labor leaders celebrate the FMLA’s 20th Anniversary and remind us all of an important truth: that the FMLA made it possible for over 100 million people to act on the responsibility that we have to our families.
Upon implementation of the FMLA, Unions were quick to improve on the law by codifying the language into union contracts. This had the benefit of ensuring that union members knew about the law and that employers would comply with it. Over time, this approach has worked. Recent research shows that union members are more likely to know about the FMLA than non-union workers. Relatedly, employers operating with a collective bargaining agreement are almost twice as likely to comply with the FMLA than non-union employers.
Many unions also negotiated expansions to the law, reducing the wait time, increasing the period to recover from a serious illness, welcoming a newborn, or being there for a parent in their last days. Other local unions bargained for paid family leave – imagine the difficulty for millions of Americans, having to go to work when they need to be at home caring for a new baby or a sick spouse. For many union members, this isn’t an issue. In fact, recent estimates suggest that 46% of unionized people have paid leave compared with only 29% of non-union workers. This is why in 2002, the California Labor Federation and the Labor Project for Working Families led a campaign to win the nation’s first Paid Family Leave law in California.
We can all do better. In this 20th Anniversary of the FMLA, a landmark law that is all about family, let us remember that 177 other nations have a paid family leave system -- the U.S. has none. We essentially ask hard-working people, who've put in the time and played by the rules to forgo a paycheck when they need it the most – recovery from an illness, welcoming a beautiful baby or supporting a sick spouse. Our national leave program should be robust. It should include every single individual who works for a living; all parents regardless of gender; a broader definition of family; and above all real compensation.
Don’t get me wrong, we know that FMLA improvements won't be easy, but the rewards will be great. Heck, it took 9 years, and two vetoes to get the first legislation signed into law. Joel Packer, Raben Group, was the National Education Association (NEA), co-chair of the FMLA lobbying taskforce for the entire 9 years. He said, “I’ve been a federal lobbyist for over 35 years and passage of the FMLA was one of the most difficult but rewarding issues I’ve worked on. It really benefits families, children and the elderly in a concrete way. At the time, opponents argued how harmful it would be to the business community. But the horror stories didn’t materialize. It's also a good example that elections really do matter. This family-oriented legislation was vetoed twice – but President Clinton will go down in history as signing the FMLA into law for American families.”
So here we are 20 years and over 100 million FMLA users later. Against unprecedented attacks, the labor movement remains committed to expansion of the FMLA for all people. But we need every person who cares about American families to join this struggle. What will our legacy be? Will we improve upon the FMLA by allowing all people to honor their family commitments? Will our sons and daughters have job-protected, paid time off to care for us? Will we expand the FMLA to ensure coverage for our most vulnerable families: single women, people of color and low-wage workers? The ball is in our court, America!