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Elizabeth Shuler's picture

On Feb. 5, let's celebrate 20 years of The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Since 1993, the FMLA has been used more than 100 million times, helping 35 million people keep their jobs and health insurance while caring for a family health crisis or a new baby. That's truly something to celebrate.

But this groundbreaking law didn't just pop into our lives in 1993. A committed community of activists -- women’s groups, union members, faith allies, family advocates and more -- worked together for nine years to win it.

That’s the same kind of collective action we need today to make real the FMLA’s promise to help families struggling to balance work and home life. In other words, all of us.

Today, millions of working families still are forced to choose between getting a paycheck and caring for their families. That's an impossible choice no one in our country should face.

Together we passed the FMLA. Together we can make its promise real by doing three things:

1) Right now, campaigns are under way nationally and in states to make sure people who are sick or have a sick child can stay home from work rather than infect others or risk escalating an illness. It’s time for a basic floor of paid sick days like the Healthy Families Act would provide. Despite landslide public support, the bill hasn’t made its way out of Congress.

Doesn't it pain you to hear flu epidemic news reports urging us to stay home if we're sick -- when more than 40 million private-sector workers don't have any paid sick leave at all?

If we won the FMLA, we can win the Healthy Families Act. You can help by signing here.

2. Paid sick leave counts most when basic pay is fair. Today, it's not. Women are breadwinners for our families, but we earn just 77 cents for every $1 a man makes—and for women of color the pay disparity is even worse. The Paycheck Fairness Act, in Congress again after being blocked by Senate Republicans last year, would help end pay discrimination -- and we should pass it this year. You can urge Congress to pass it here.

3. FMLA provides millions of eligible workers with unpaid leave to care for a new baby, one's own serious illness or the illness of a family member. But only half of workers are covered and eligible, with young workers and workers of color at greatest risk of being unprotected. And almost 80% of eligible people who need it can't afford to take the unpaid leave.

Think about those young workers -- in their child-bearing years. Sixty-nine percent of people younger than 40 in one survey said they will need family leave in the next 10 years. But young workers are more likely than the rest of us to be ineligible for FMLA because they work part-time, haven't been in their job long enough, are in informal or contingent work and are at the lower end of the pay scale (wages are a factor because companies are prone to limiting voluntary paid leave benefits to high-earners as a perk). Working people in unions, who bargain collectively with employers about benefits, have it better. Among hourly workers, 46% of union members receive full pay while on leave, compared with 29 percent of non-union workers. But all families should have access to FMLA and be able to use it.

This anniversary is a time to join together -- as we did to pass the FMLA -- in a new campaign to call for the expansion of the landmark law.

Winning the FMLA took work. And struggle. Exactly the kind of work and struggle we need today if we're to make the promise of FMLA real for all working people in this country -- by passing the Healthy Families Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act and by expanding FMLA.

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