FMLA at Twenty-One: Let’s Blow Out the Candles and Get to Work
By Liz Ben-Ishai
A 20th anniversary is an important milestone. But turning 21? Although exciting for young adults, it’s a slightly less momentous number for a law. So, with the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) a year behind us, 21 is a good time to roll up our sleeves and get to work, improving upon the law. On this anniversary, policymakers, advocates, and businesses are calling for Congress to do more for working families.
The FMLA provides some workers with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new baby, tend to a sick family member, or recover from one’s own illness. Having access to this type of leave has enabled many workers to take the leave they need without worrying about the security of their jobs. Yet, many others are excluded from the law. Expansion of the FMLA would be a critical step forward for these workers. For millions more, lack of wage replacement is an insurmountable barrier. As a result, time at home with a newborn is cut short; the needs of aging parents must go unmet; and workers must return to their jobs before fully recovering from illness. For these workers, it’s simply not feasible to forego pay in order to take needed leave.
In December, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act in Congress. The bill would create a paid family and medical leave insurance program, enabling workers to take up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave for the same reasons FMLA currently applies. The program sets up a self-sustaining pool of funds with small contributions from employers and employees of less than two cents for every 10 dollars of wages. When on leave, employees receive 66 percent of wages, up to a maximum of $4000 per month.
Just as 21 years ago when the FMLA was groundbreaking legislation, so too could be the FAMILY Act, today. Although many have benefited from the FMLA, many are excluded or unable to take advantage of the Act due to financial constraints. The FAMILY Act is a universal program – it would cover anyone who pays into social security – and most importantly, it would make much-needed leave time more affordable. No one should have to return to work two weeks after giving birth. No one should have to leave a loved-one’s side when he or she is seriously ill and needs care. No one should be forced to compromise his or her health by returning to work too soon after illness or injury. But far too many workers are making these “choices.”
Although we often think of the toll that lack of paid leave has on employees, employers also experience the downsides of this gap in our national family policies. First, many employers truly want to do the right thing for their employees. However, particularly for smaller businesses, offering paid family and medical leave can be a challenge. The FAMILY Act makes it possible for them to do so without bearing the full cost. Second, those same small employers are better able to compete with larger businesses for the best workers when they are able to offer paid leave. Finally, businesses know that offering paid leave helps to build employee loyalty and reduce turnover – outcomes that ultimately boost the bottom line. For these reasons, more and more businesses are voicing support for the FAMILY Act.
Let’s enjoy the celebration that comes with being 21, but also use this year’s FMLA anniversary to enter a new era of family policy in the U.S. – one that makes it possible for working people to care for themselves and their loved ones without risking their economic security. As President Obama suggested in his State of the Union speech last week, we must leave behind the workplace policies of the “Mad Men” era. The FAMILY Act can fuel this step forward, creating equitable workplaces, strong businesses, thriving families, and prosperous communities across the nation.