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Randi Weingarten's picture

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On the Family and Medical Leave Act’s 20th anniversary, it is impossible to overstate the law's value to working families and the dramatic impact it has had on public schools, educators, nurses, public employees and other professionals. Since the FMLA's enactment, more than 50 million workers have been able to take job-protected time off when they need it most: for the care of a newborn, a newly adopted child or a family member who is seriously ill.

When a school-age child gets sick, the FMLA allows a parent to keep the child at home so the boy or girl won't infect other students, which in turn helps make our schools healthier and safer places to learn. When a teacher needs to take an extended leave for illness, including surgery, family care, or pregnancy and infant care, the time off permitted under FMLA can be a lifeline for the educator and her career. Health insurance coverage continues, and retirement security is maintained. Careers are not cut short, and continuity is maintained in classrooms. Schools have a better climate when teacher turnover is reduced and when kids who need to get well do so at home, rather than going to school sick because their parents can't take time off from work.

No one, teachers included, should have to choose between their livelihood and their family. When my mother was gravely ill, I was able to take the time off I needed to care for her. Everyone should be afforded that same choice.

The FMLA has been challenged repeatedly. Opponents have attempted to use the U.S. Department of Labor's regulatory power to scale back the scope of the law by limiting the definition of serious illness or redefining when the care of a family member is needed. Thankfully, most of these attacks have failed.

The American Federation of Teachers was one of many unions instrumental in passing the FMLA in 1993. Just as the labor movement helped pass the law in the first place, the labor movement must continue to work to improve it.

The FMLA is a vital law that deserves to be celebrated, but it needs to be even better. The current law only applies to workplaces with 50 or more employees, which means that some 44.5 million workers are not covered. Smaller employers are even less likely to provide any sick leave and other work-family benefits, leaving their workers with a crisis of balancing job and family.

Further, family leave policies in many other industrialized countries provide for paid leave, but the FMLA only provides for unpaid leave. Expanding the FMLA would enable more workers to meet the needs of their families without having to compromise their income and job security.

AFT affiliates continue to bargain with employers for family and medical leave benefits that extend beyond the FMLA, and we will continue to lead efforts at the state and local levels to win paid family and medical leave benefits for working families and the extension of coverage to employees in smaller workplaces. We celebrate the FMLA, but our work is not yet done.

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