Threats, Opportunities on FMLA's 25th Anniversary

By Eduardo Hernandez and Pronita Gupta 

President Trump gets paid leave wrong again 

The Trump Administration has recycled its problematic 2018 paid parental leave policy in the FY 2019 budget. This limited, poorly drafted policy is especially striking because it comes on the heels of the historic Family and Medical Leave Act’s (FMLA) 25th anniversary.

President Trump’s parental leave policy would leave out millions of people who have care-giving responsibilities or are recovering from illness. It’s unlikely low-wage workers could afford to take this leave given the very low benefits levels. Most importantly, the policy would require states to finance paid leave through their already-fragile unemployment insurance systems, pitting the needs of working parents against those of unemployed workers. This recycled policy proposal would do little to meet the needs and challenges of working families while potentially causing more harm.

Celebrating FMLA while aiming much higher 

On February 5, we marked the 25th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This legislation acknowledged the reality that working people are also caregivers. However, despite FMLA’s important role in changing the culture of work, much remains to be done to improve job quality for low-wage workers.

FMLA provides eligible employees with 12 weeks of job-protected leave to care for a newborn, recover from a serious medical condition, and to care for a seriously ill spouse, parent, or child. However, 4 in 10 workers are not covered by FMLA, with low-wage workers faring worst. Moreover, the unpaid nature of FMLA means low-wage workers disproportionately lack access to a benefit that has always favored higher educated and higher-income workers. It’s irrational, even immoral, to expect low-wage workers (who are often heads of households) to forgo their paychecks while still paying their bills and feeding their families. A Congressional Research Service report found that only an estimated 39 percent of employees with annual wages and salary of less than $35,000 may have been eligible for FMLA, while nearly 78 percent of employees with earnings greater than $75,000 could have taken the leave. These disparities are troubling—especially when 27 percent of working parents earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

FMLA also has racial inequities. While 43 percent of eligible white working parents can afford to take unpaid leave, just 35 percent of Blacks and 25 percent of Hispanics have that opportunity.

In addition, FMLA only applies to businesses with 50 or more employees and people who have worked at least 1,250 hours for the same employer during the last 12 months. For part-time workers, this requires at least 25 hours a week to be eligible. It’s hard to meet that requirement when employers have volatile scheduling practices that lead to inadequate hours, lack of advance notice of shifts, and erratic schedules. Recent employment data from the U.S. Department of Labor reveals more than 5 million people are working involuntary part-time jobs—including people who are juggling multiple part-time jobs in which none allow enough hours for FMLA eligibility.

The rise of precarious employment has only exacerbated the aforementioned racial gap. In January 2018 alone, Black women were almost twice as likely as white women to be working part-time for economic reasons, such as having their hours cut back by their employers and being unable to find full-time jobs. 

While we mark important progress over the past 25 years, we must recognize that workers and families need far more support. Right now, Congress has a real chance to improve job quality for low-wage workers. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act would enable workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child, care for a seriously ill family member, or recover from their own serious illness. The program would use a social insurance model funded by small contributions from employers and employees.

With immense public support, we urge Congress to push forward with the FAMILY Act. As more states pass and introduce paid leave bills, we’re seeing real change that includes all families and workers instead of picking winners and losers.