August marked the 20th anniversary of the implementation of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA); a groundbreaking law that has been used more than 100 million times, helping workers keep their jobs while they care for a family health crisis or a new baby. Unfortunately, because FMLA leave is generally unpaid and has eligibility restrictions, millions who qualify for it can’t afford to take it, and millions who’d like to benefit from it are excluded.
Teresa Benns, from Del Norte, Colorado, is one of the fortunate ones who qualified for FMLA. As the primary caregiver for her husband, who is a veteran and disabled, Teresa is able to take unpaid leave. But like millions of working people, she can’t afford to. “If I take time off to care for my husband, I don’t get paid, and then I get behind on my mortgage and my bills,” says Benns.
Being fired, or losing a day’s pay, for taking care of yourself or a loved one during an illness, means that women can’t pay their rent, buy groceries, or repair their car – purchases that support families and local businesses. We can do better by working women and our economy.
Case in point -- Jill Delie who lives in Milwaukee, benefits from Wisconsin’s Family Medical Leave Act (WFMLA) that 9to5 helped pass in 1988. Wisconsin’s version of FMLA allows the employee to choose to substitute accrued paid or unpaid leave of any kind, helping working families balance work and family responsibilities more easily. A special-ed teacher, Jill was recently diagnosed with a chronic nerve condition with no known cure. Jill takes a few days of FMLA monthly to undergo tests and to learn how to manage the disease. “If I lost my job because of my condition, I would lose everything,” says Jill Delie. “I don’t have another source of income so I choose to use my accrued sick hours under WFMLA. If I didn’t have the option to use my paid time off, I would’ve had no choice but to go into work while in chronic pain. I work hard to provide the quality education that my students deserve, but going to work sick would mean that I wouldn’t be able to do my job to the best of my ability.” Delie is now engaged in 9to5's statewide effort to both protect the state law from attack by corporate lobbyists, and to educate voters and elected officials about the need for paid family and medical leave insurance.
Again, we can do better. FMLA was meant only as a first step in helping workers handle the dual responsibilities of work and family. Working women and families nationwide need access to paid family and medical leave insurance – a reflection of the realities faced by today’s workers, families and the economy. Paid leave would benefit all workers, but especially working women because they make up more than half of the workforce and represent 59 to 75 percent of family or informal caregivers.
The Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), being introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, will create an entirely self-funded insurance program that would support workers and businesses. Funding for the program would come from very small employee and employer contributions. Employees would receive a portion of their wages when they need to be at home to recuperate from their own serious illness; the serious illness of a child, parent, domestic partner or spouse; the birth or adoption of a child; the injury of a family member who is in the military; or needs arising from a service member’s deployment.
The benefits of paid leave are vast, including lower unemployment rates and greater job security, financial independence, economic growth, and savings to businesses by reducing worker replacement costs. Family and medical leave insurance has been passed in California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington. In California, where it has been in effect longest, between 89 and 99 percent of employers report that the program has had either a positive or no noticeable effect on turnover, productivity, profitability and morale.
The FAMILY Act will allow women and families to maintain basic spending at a time they need it the most – contributing to stability of families, communities and a growing economy. It’s a simple common sense solution hardworking Americans want. And it’s the perfect prescription that will keep working women and families, local businesses and the economy vital and healthy.