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Mary Kay Henry's picture

TODAY, as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), I believe we should take this opportunity to reflect on the incredible impact this legislation has had on millions of working families across our country. From the janitor in Houston taking care of an ailing parent to the Seattle teacher spending time with his newborn son or the nurse in Baltimore making sure her husband recovers quickly following major surgery – this is about strengthening our families and our communities through smart legislation.

I am proud of the SEIU member-leaders who stepped up some twenty years ago and fought for FMLA protections in their contracts, not just on behalf of our union’s 2.1 million members, but for every hardworking person in this country. Their efforts speak to our broader commitment to dignity and justice for every worker. And their work, along with the work of allies and elected champions for working people, guarantee job-protected, unpaid leave for 12 weeks, which workers can use to care for a new baby, a seriously ill child, parent or spouse, or to recover from an illness.

In the twenty years since its passage, FMLA has been used more than 100 million times. Furthermore, the act has ensured that 35 million were able to keep their jobs and their health insurance while they cared for a new baby or a family member facing a health crisis. To be protected by FMLA, a worker must be employed by a company with 50 or more employees, work at least 1,250 hours per year and have been on the job at the company for at least a year.

We know that when workplaces engender a culture of dignity and respect for workers, it is good for everyone – and we know that FMLA has helped create that culture in workplaces across the country. Not only is FMLA supported by 88% of voters, nearly two-thirds of employers reported that complying with FMLA is at least somewhat easy. In fact, mothers who gave birth after the passage of FMLA were more likely to return to the same employer and took less time away from paid employment than those who gave birth before FMLA.

Meanwhile, replacing an employee permanently, rather than providing leave, can cost as much as five times the employee’s yearly wages due to additional losses in productivity and employee morale.

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of this legislation, we should be proud of the progress that we’ve made, but we cannot lose sight of the work that is left to be done to ensure every worker is treated with dignity and respect. Today, while approximately one-fifth of all new mothers are covered by FMLA, people of color and young adults are less likely to be covered. And, unfortunately, FMLA does not cover domestic partners or other family members like siblings.

And while we continue to fight for expanded FMLA coverage, we also need to ensure that those who are protected by FMLA can afford to take advantage of the law. As it stands, 78% of eligible workers who needed to take leave didn't, citing their inability to afford to go without wages as the primary reason. The majority of new mothers who worked through their pregnancies return to work before the allotted 12 weeks, with more than a half million women each year going back to work in 4 weeks or less.

While we at SEIU celebrate this important milestone for the FMLA we also know we still have a ways to go. Improving the current law will only make our families stronger; first, we must begin to identify a means of providing family leave insurance, including all workers and broadening the definition of family to be more realistic and inclusive.

Strong families will build strong communities and thus a stronger nation. Let's make it happen together.

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