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Gaylynn Burroughs's picture

Twenty years ago, Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), mandating that certain employees receive job-protected unpaid leave to care for an immediate family member, a newborn, or a newly adopted child.  Signing the law on February 5, 1993, President Bill Clinton said, “Family and medical leave is a matter of pure common sense and a matter of common decency.  It will provide Americans what they need most: peace of mind.  Never again will parents have to fear losing their jobs because of their families.”

He was right – to an extent.  No one should lose a job because of a medical emergency, a serious illness, or a new child.  Some 100 million U.S. workers have enjoyed time off because of the FMLA, and most employers have reported no negative impact on business profitability or productivity because of the law.

But not every family has had peace of mind.

Most worksites are not covered by the FMLA.  The law applies only to public agencies and private sector employers with 50 or more employees.  And many workers are not covered by the law.  A 2012 study of the impact of the FMLA found that around 40 percent of the workforce is not eligible for guaranteed unpaid leave.

Even if you are eligible for FMLA leave, you may not be able to afford it.  Nearly 50 percent of workers with an unmet need for leave explain that they cannot afford to take time off.

Meanwhile, paid leave is a luxury available to very few.  The Department of Labor reports that only 11 percent of private sector workers in the United States have access to paid family leave through their employers. Low-wage workers fare even worse.  Only 5 percent of these workers receive paid leave. And research from the Center for American Progress indicates that Black and Latino workers are less likely to be able to access paid leave, even for the birth or adoption of a new child.

Women are the most affected by the lack of paid leave.  Women make up close to half of the total U.S. workforce, and more than 70 percent of women with children under the age of 18 are working outside of the home. But when a medical emergency strikes, or when a child is born or adopted, women are the ones most likely to leave the workplace to provide care at home. And this has far-reaching effects on families. Today, women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40 percent of families with children under the age of 18. The loss of their income translates into financial insecurity.

Motherhood should not lead to poverty.  Caring for a loved one should not mean insurmountable debt and bankruptcy.  Lost income combined with new medical costs can be financially devastating to a family at a time when they may be most vulnerable and unable to recover.

It’s time for a change.  The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act) is a step in the right direction.

The FAMILY Act, introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), would permit employees to earn up to 12 weeks of paid family leave each year through the creation of a national insurance fund.  Both employers and employees would make payroll contributions to the fund, which would be administered through a new Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave within the Social Security Administration.

All workers who are eligible for Social Security disability benefits would be covered by the FAMILY Act.  That means more workers – including part-time and low-wage workers and workers in all companies – would be financially able to take time off to manage their own serious illness or to provide care for a loved one.

We can no longer afford for paid leave to be a luxury.  Our economy depends on women’s labor.  Families depend on women’s wages.  Economic security is tied to income stability for women and their families, and businesses do better when people feel more financially sound.  With the FAMILY Act, fewer women will have to risk financial insecurity to meet their families’ needs.  That benefits us all.

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