Happy Birthday to the Family Medical Leave Act!
Wonky Washington is making merry about the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s signing of the Family Medical Leave. This was the federal law that required some employers to allow some employees to take up to 12 weeks away from work, without pay, to deal with the birth or adoption of a child, a family member’s serious medical condition, or one’s own serious medical condition. Millions of workers have used the leave to respond to a caregiving need, secure in the knowledge that their job would be there upon their return. By all accounts, employers have managed to incorporate the program into their operations with minimum inconvenience. As far as it goes, the FMLA has been a success.
It just doesn’t go very far. In order to benefit from FMLA, you must have worked 1250 hours in the past 12 months for a single employer immediately preceding the leave. That works out to about 24 hours per week, so immediately millions of part-time workers are filtered out of eligibility. If you work multiple part-time jobs, even up to a 40-hour work week, but don’t have a single employer for whom you work the required amount, you won’t be eligible. It is not a good fit for everyone.
Another barrier is that the law only applies to employers with at least 50 employees. That leaves out about half the private sector workforce, so the FMLA is hardly a basic minimum labor standard like other regulations we are used to, such as the minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, and the prohibition against child labor, that apply across the board. Even for those who are eligible, FMLA leave may still be out of reach. Sure, you may have just had a baby, or your spouse may be getting chemotherapy, but if you can’t afford to forego your paycheck, you are still torn between looking after your loved one and keeping a roof over your head. Hardly a “family -friendly” position.
Of course, the intention was for FMLA to be a first step. By this time, advocates thought, the law would have been expanded and a way found for it to apply to all workers, with some proportionate extension to part-time workers. It would also offer paid leave, so a worker would not only stay connected to the workforce, return to his or her job, deal with the family health crisis – he or she would also not slide into poverty or economic peril with some measure of income replacement. The definition of “family” could use more flexibility, adding care by and between grandparents and grandchildren, adult siblings, in-laws, and domestic partners. All this was supposed to follow easily in the wage of the FMLA’s enactment. To date, none of it has materialized.
If you’d like to support the FMLA and promote its expansion there are two very practical things you can do. First, call your legislators, simply identify yourself as a constituent, and state that you support the FMLA and you’d like to see it expanded to help more workers and to include paid leave. It’s easy and fast, and they WANT to hear from you! You can find the contact info here. Next, if you’ve used FMLA and been glad to have it, or if you’ve needed it and couldn’t get it, tell your FMLA story on a survey tool operated by the National Partnership for Women & Children to collect FMLA stories. The collection will be used in future efforts to push for better policies that will help all families look after each other AND honor their obligations at work.
Not sure you’re ready to go on the record for FMLA? Maybe looking at some of the anniversary scuttlebutt will tip you over the edge into activism. The Motherlode blog at the NYT dedicated its space to the FMLA today. Working Mother magazine featured a column by Debra Ness of the National Partnership, the advocacy group that drafted the language and got it done 20 years ago. You can sign up for a phone call on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. EST hosted by CLASP (the Center for Law and Social Policy) and listen in while experts talk about how FMLA has worked from different viewpoints by registering for free here.
Making paid family leave available to every worker and every family in this country is a necessary and worthy target. You could make this cause your own.
‘Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington