Family Values @ Work

Time to Care for All of Us

Time to Care for All of Us

August 1, 2017

On August 5, 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a law 9 years in the making, took effect. The FMLA brought huge change to workplaces across the country, ensuring for the first time that if you or your “family” (we’ll get to the fine print later) needed care, you wouldn’t need to lose your job to provide it (unless you fell into another fine print category).

Since 1993, workers used the FMLA more than 200 million times. There’s Fernan, who used the FMLA to care for his wife when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And Jessica, who used the FMLA when she was diagnosed with breast cancer as a young mom (until the time ran out).

But (and here’s where we get to the fine print), it turns out that for every person who used the FMLA, there are more who needed it but couldn’t. Some, like Anne Marie, found that the FMLA worked only if you were caring for yourself, your parent, or your child – but not your sister. Or Emily, whose wife could stay home for only 7 (unpaid) days after Emily gave birth before she had to return to work. Or Dorcas, who flew home to be with her mom when she died, and is still trying to pay bills from her time away from work a year later.

It turns out that, despite the FMLA, nearly 40% of workers are left out of the plan. The FMLA covers only individual employees, their parents, and their children – which leaves out grandparents and grandchildren, siblings, unmarried partners, and so many more. Plus, it can be used only by people in a workplace with at least 50 workers, and even then employees are eligible only if they’ve worked there for at least a year.

In addition to the people who can’t use the FMLA, we have to think about those who can’t afford to take unpaid leave. Nearly one in four pregnant women who are employed return to work within two weeks, mostly because they cannot afford to go without pay. Forty-eight percent of family caregivers who have to take leave to care for a family member lost income during that time. Every year, working families in the United States lose $20.6 billion in lost wages due to a lack of access to paid family and medical leave.

Four years ago, President Clinton said that of all the legislation he signed, he still gets the most thanks for the FMLA – but by the end of his administration, he was already calling for workers to earn paid family leave. Since then, states have taken the lead in passing their own programs to pool small contributions so employees can draw wages while they recover or care for a family member. These wins – and more are on the horizon – are paving the way for a national program like the one laid out in the FAMILY Act, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro.

As we look back over the past 24 years, we have to wonder – how do we measure the FMLA? In the workers who used it to care for themselves and the people they loved, or in those that the FMLA left behind? In the months since the law took effect, or in the months until paid family leave becomes a reality for all Americans?

For now, we choose to measure it in the stories we’ve heard in recent years. You can read some of them in our recent booklet, “Value All Care, Value Every Family.”  Add your own.  Then join us to make paid family leave a reality for all.

By Marianne Bellesorte, National Implementation Director at Family Values @ Work.