On FMLA’s 27th Anniversary, It’s Time to Pass Paid Leave for All

By Tanya L. Goldman

Congress’s passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993 was a groundbreaking achievement. Employees have since used FMLA more than 200 million times to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave and maintain health insurance benefits. But because of coverage and eligibility restrictions, over 49 million private sector employees are excluded from the FMLA’s protections. Even more employees who are eligible simply can’t afford to take advantage of the FMLA, with workers earning low wages particularly harmed. The FMLA was a powerful and necessary law, but it’s time for paid leave for all.

The FMLA’s restrictions exclude many low-wage workers—particularly people in precarious jobs, including those working part-time involuntarily. Even those technically eligible for FMLA are often unable to afford unpaid leave. Bethany Fauteux, for example, traveled from Massachusetts to a roundtable on Capitol Hill in 2019 to tell members of Congress about returning to work three weeks after giving birth so she could care for other people’s children: 

In order to keep a roof over our heads, I had to return to work three weeks after giving birth. As I sat on the floor taking care of other mothers’ babies, the pain of the not-yet-healed c-section stitches didn’t compare to the pain of not being with my own brand-new baby.  

Unfortunately, Beth’s story is not unique. Many women earning low wages, including domestic workers and caregivers who are often women of color, lack access to leave to care for themselves or their own loved ones. Access and ability to take leave also varies by race and ethnicity. Hispanic, Black, and American Indian/Alaska Native workers are less likely to be eligible for and able to afford unpaid leave using the FMLA. As one Congresswomen noted in a hearing last year, it’s an embarrassment that the United States is the only industrialized nation that fails to guarantee paid family leave.

We know that comprehensive paid leave is critical and feasible. The Center for American Progress estimates that workers and their families are losing $22.5 billion in wages annually due to a lack of paid family and medical leave, with women experiencing particularly acute impacts. Given the importance and urgent need, eight states and the District of Columbia—in the absence of federal action—have passed paid leave laws. California was the first to enact paid family leave in 2002, and we now have over 15 years of data and experience from California to model at the national level. 

Congress is starting to take key steps. In 2019 it passed paid parental leave for most federal workers. This new policy is good for federal workers, their families, and even the private sector. But the law doesn’t offer leave for the most common reasons federal workers might need it—for their own medical condition or to care for a loved one. While parents can take paid leave to welcome a new child, they can’t for bed rest during a high-risk pregnancy or to care for a seriously ill child. 

For that type of plan, we look to Senator Gillibrand and Congresswoman DeLauro, who have reintroduced the FAMILY Act, the only bi-partisan proposal that provides an evidence-based comprehensive plan for paid family and medical leave. The House Ways and Means Committee has held two historic hearings, and we have learned much from the FMLA and state paid leave laws. 

Representatives, witnesses, and experts have all testified to the importance of an equitable program that includes sufficient wages while on leave so low-wage workers can benefit in the same proportion as others, an inclusive definition of the family members you can take leave to care for, and protection so employees can return to their jobs after leave. These elements are the backbone of an equitable program that will work for everyone. 

Beth is using her pain and deeply personal experience about the need for paid leave to fuel her advocacy for working people. She campaigned to pass paid family and medical leave in Massachusetts. She is now part of the worker advisory group for Paid Leave for All, a campaign to win paid family and medical leave for all working people, starting with passage of the FAMILY Act by the House this year. Her story is just one of millions underscoring why it’s time to pass paid family and medical leave for all.