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Cross-posted at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

18 years. That’s how long the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has been in place. It was the first bill President Clinton signed into law and it remains one of the proudest accomplishments of his presidency.

The FMLA is the first national law designed to help working families meet the dual demands of work and family. Incredibly, as I write this today, it’s also the last.

As we celebrate this anniversary and reflect on how far we have come, we must renew our commitment to ensuring all working families have basic job protections so they can meet their health needs. Today, many do not: More than 75 million workers still don’t have family and medical leave protections. Millions more can’t afford to take the unpaid leave the FMLA makes possible.

At a time when workers are struggling to manage responsibilities at work and at home—and when losing a job often means six months or more of unemployment—we must redouble our efforts to ensure workers have leave to meet key family health needs. The FMLA was an historic step, but it was just a first step. We must continue the progress.

Since 1993, millions of workers have been able to use the FMLA to take unpaid job-protected time away from work to recover from illness, care for a sick family member or bond with a new child. The legislation has allowed workers to keep their health insurance and their jobs when they need leave.

In recent years, we have seen some improvements. Members of the military, their families and flight crews now have protection under the federal FMLA. Some state leave laws have recognized more family caregiving relationships and covered more workers. Last year, the Department of Labor interpreted the law to allow some grandparents and some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) parents to take unpaid time off to care for a new or ill child. In addition, after years of advocacy by the National Partnership and allies, the Department of Labor will collect new data on FMLA access and usage in 2011 so that we can see how the law is working—and what improvements may be needed.

Those are important steps, but workers need more. At the national level, we urgently need to extend FMLA job-protected leave to people who work part-time and for smaller companies, to siblings, grandchildren and others.

And we need to make paid leave available. Many families cannot afford to take unpaid leave. That’s why access to paid family and medical leave is so critical. California and New Jersey have paid family leave insurance programs that have made a tremendous difference for working families’ economic security, with a minimal cost for both businesses and workers. California’s program—the first in the nation—has recently made headlines as a big success. A major report released last month revealed that an overwhelming majority of businesses and workers are benefiting from the program. New Jersey is seeing similarly positive results.

America needs a national paid family leave insurance system or, at the very least, we should dedicate funds to support innovative states that are developing their own paid leave programs.

The National Partnership was the driving force behind passage of the FMLA all those years ago.  Today, we’re calling on members of Congress to take the next big step toward becoming a family-friendly nation. Whether it’s to care for a new child, to deal with one’s own illness or to meet the health needs of a family member, all workers will need paid family and medical leave—and employers and our country will benefit when we provide it. The time to do this is now.

Portia Wu is vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

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