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Liz Watson's picture

On FMLA’s 20th birthday, America should celebrate this critical piece of legislation, which gave millions of workers the right to job-protected, unpaid leave. But we must also recognize how much farther we have to go in creating a workplace that takes into account the caregiving needs of the 21st century workforce.

First, the celebration: Thanks to the FMLA, millions of workers have been able to take time off from work without risking their jobs to care for a new child, for their own illness, or to care for family members who were sick. Ninety-one percent of employers report that complying with the FMLA has had either positive or neutral effects on their businesses. The positive business impacts noted by employers include reductions in employee absences, reductions in turnover, and improved morale. Eighty-five percent of employers report that complying with the FMLA is very easy, somewhat easy, or has no noticeable effect on their businesses.

The bottom line: the FMLA has been wildly successful. And now we should build on that success.

We need to strengthen the FMLA so that all workers have the right to take time off to care for a new child, for their own serious health condition, or to care for a family member. Today, far too many workers are ineligible for FMLA--only 59% of employees meet the three eligibility requirements (working for an employer with 50 or more employees, having 12 months of job tenure, and working 1,250 hours in the past year). We need to change these thresholds to extend the FMLA's protections to many more workers who badly need it.

Likewise, we need to put in place a paid leave program that ensures that all workers can actually afford to take leave. Today, for too many workers, the FMLA remains an unfulfilled promise, since many simply can’t take time off from work without pay. This is particularly true for low-wage workers, who are least likely to have paid leave voluntarily provided by their employers and who can least afford to take it.

Twenty years ago, we took a major step toward helping American workers take care of our families – but for too many of us, the promise remains unfilled. On FMLA’s birthday, let’s pledge to work to help this crucial law get even better with age.

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