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Debra Ness's picture

This column originally appeared in The Hill's Congress Blog.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the first bill President Bill Clinton signed into law and the first national law ever to help workers meet the dual demands of work and family. In the two decades since that historic signing, workers in this country have taken FMLA leave more than 100 million times. That’s time that allowed them to manage medical complications during pregnancies, care for new babies, recover from heart attacks, get treatment for cancer, care for parents who had strokes or whose diabetes was out of control, and more.

Thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), workers covered by the law could do even more than take leave when they needed it most; they could do so with confidence that their health insurance would continue and their job, or a comparable one, would be there when they returned.

As data released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Labor shows, the FMLA has been an unqualified success. It’s been hugely positive for workers and families, and the vast majority of businesses have found it easy to use.

The National Partnership, then the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, led the fight to enact the FMLA, building an unusually strong, broad-based coalition that included labor, aging, women’s, civil rights, faith and children’s groups. There was opposition to overcome and it took several years to do so, but we prevailed – and the country is much better off because we did.

That extraordinary coalition, and the lawmakers who supported the law, intended it to be the first step on the road to a family friendly nation. Certainly, it’s been that, and more.

Some states have taken the next steps, with paid sick days standards, paid family leave insurance, expanded access to the FMLA and more.

But at the federal level, the next step has been delayed for much too long.

The FMLA covers only 60 percent of workers. It does not cover those who work part-time or for small employers, and who are new to their jobs. It does not cover workers who need time to care for siblings, grandparents, adult children or domestic partners. It does not cover leave for those who need time to address the effects of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. And it provides only unpaid leave, which millions of workers simply cannot afford to take.

It’s time – past time – to expand this law so that it covers more workers who need to take leave for more reasons. And we need to enact a national paid family and medical leave insurance program so that families no longer suffer because they cannot afford to take the unpaid leave the FMLA provides.

The public is ready. A poll conducted by Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group in November found a bipartisan voter mandate for family friendly policies to promote working families’ economic security – and showed that voters have a significant need for these policies. Across party and demographic lines, an overwhelming majority of respondents said they struggle to manage their work and family responsibilities. More than 70 percent said they and their families would be likely to face significant financial hardships if they had a serious illness, had to care for a family member with a serious illness, or had a new child.

More than 85 percent said it is important for Congress and the president to consider new laws like paid family and medical leave insurance to help keep families financially secure. Latinos, African Americans, women and young people – the very voters who decided the last election – felt most strongly about congressional and presidential action.

But this is an issue on which there’s been a disconnect between what the voters want and what Congress seems ready to do. The Healthy Families Act, a modest measure to provide a minimum national standard for earned paid sick days, has been stalled for several years. And as paid family leave measures have been considered in the states, organized business interests have poured huge amounts of money into efforts to defeat them.

Twenty years after the Family and Medical Leave Act became law, it’s time to expand it to cover more workers and it’s time for a national paid leave insurance program. Congress should listen to the voters, and take this next step. Family friendly policies are good for workers, families, communities, businesses and the country.

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