In the nine years we worked to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act – one of us as a legislative sponsor in Congress and the other as a grassroots activist – we heard every prediction of doom: the sky would fall, the business community wouldn’t survive another day, no employer would want to hire women.
Today, 20 years after it was signed into law, FMLA is part of the business lexicon with no such calamity coming to pass. American families have used the law more than 100 million times. FMLA serves as a model for a successful jobs policy passed with bi-partisan support.
But while we take a moment to celebrate the groundbreaking changes it created, we must also realize its limitations – and the opportunities for our nation’s leaders to do more to strengthen families and protect jobs.
Thanks to FMLA, millions of working people have been able to welcome a new baby, minister to a seriously ill child, care for an ailing parent or spouse, or recover from a personal illness without jeopardizing the job or health insurance they need. FMLA has enabled a generation of children to get their best start in life, and a generation of seniors to age with peace of mind. It’s increased the economic security for a generation of working families who are navigating how to meet the needs of work and family.
Workers like Kimberly Jones from Stevens Point, Wisconsin have used FMLA to seek therapies for a child diagnosed with Aspergers. Thanks to FMLA, Susan Lamb from Biddeford, Maine, was able to keep her job while providing end-of-life care for the 97-year-old grandmother who “rescued” and raised her. “A sad [final] month was also rich with moments of intimacy,” Susan said “You cannot put a price on peace, but regret is expensive.”
Yet half of America’s workers are not covered by the protections of FMLA because they work for employers with fewer than 50 employees, or they work part-time. FMLA’s narrow definition of family excludes those who need time to care for a same-sex partner or a sibling. And FMLA doesn’t cover routine illness like the cold or flu, leaving working parents in an impossible situation when their kids get sick.
Because the leave is unpaid, millions of workers who are covered can’t afford to take the time they need to care for a new baby or ease the passing of a beloved parent.
Consider workers like Edwardo, fired when he broke his ankle because his employer isn’t covered by FMLA, or Maria, who took only a long weekend off work after giving birth because she wasn’t eligible for leave.
Two decades after President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA into law, the United States stands only with Swaziland and Papua New Guinea in not ensuring paid leave for new mothers.
This issue is about family values, but it’s also about family economics. Our country operates as though all families have two parents, one who works unpaid at home and one who earns a living. But the reality is that the number of women supporting their families financially has more than doubled in the past 40 years; two-thirds of mothers are breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families. And more and more men have caregiving responsibilities.
Across the political spectrum, public approval to make FMLA more accessible and affordable is sky-high. Voters today also strongly support policies like earned sick days so a routine illness does not cost a family a job.
We can no longer afford to be a nation where workers put off needed surgery or disregard doctors’ orders because they have to pay their bills, and where a quarter of poverty spells directly follow the birth of a new baby.
It’s time to stop saying the words “family values” and to start really valuing families.
Schroeder, the first woman elected to the United States House of Representatives from Colorado, served from 1973–1997 and was the lead sponsor in the House of FMLA.
Bravo is the executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of 20 state coalitions working to expand family-friendly policies. She served on the bipartisan Commission on Leave appointed by Congress to study the impact of the FMLA.