Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.
22 years ago this week, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — the country’s first and only federal law to address the dual demands of job and family. As the organization that drafted and helped lead the fight for the FMLA, we at the National Partnership recognize this day every year as a historic moment that has made a tremendous difference for America’s families and the culture of our workplaces.
This year, we sought to determine just how big an impact the FMLA has had these last 22 years. The result tells a bittersweet story about our nation — one of progress, problems and possibility.
According to our new calculation, the FMLA has been used more than 200 million times since its implementation. Each of those “uses” represents a person — a mother or father, a daughter or son, a new parent — who, thanks to the 12 weeks of unpaid leave the FMLA guarantees, was able to take time away from their paying jobs to care for a seriously ill loved one, recover from a serious medical condition, or welcome a new child, without sacrificing their jobs.
Those 200 million uses are a tremendous tribute to the importance of this law and the extraordinary impact it has had on the lives of people who, at times of great joy, challenge and sadness, didn’t have to choose between their jobs and their families or their health. They had the protection to decide what was best. They — not their employers — had control when they needed to put health or family first.
The 200 million uses have also taught an entire generation that workplaces should recognize and accommodate health and caregiving needs. The FMLA established a baseline of workplace protection that was elusive for previous generations. What many expect of employer leave policies today, whether paid or unpaid, results from the standard the FMLA established.
So, those 200 million uses tell the story of the real, positive impact this law has had on families and workplaces across the nation. But there is much more to do. At the National Partnership, we know well that the FMLA was always meant to be a first step toward paid family and medical leave and a family friendly America. 22 years and 200 million uses later, we haven’t progressed nearly as far as we once hoped.
We know, for example, that about 40 percent of workers are not eligible for FMLA protections because their employers are too small or they have not worked for them long enough or for enough hours. And the most common reason people who could have taken FMLA leave say they didn’t is because they couldn’t afford to go without pay. It is strikingly clear that there remains an unmet need for job-protected leave, especially paid leave, in this country.
In fact, only 12 percent of the U.S. workforce has access to paid family leave through an employer, and less than 40 percent has personal medical leave through employer-provided short-term disability insurance. Some leading businesses provide paid leave and three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — guarantee paid leave through their own state programs. But still, 22 years after the FMLA, having paid family and medical leave is entirely dependent on where you work and live.
The good news is that progress may be on the horizon. The president called for paid leave in his State of the Union address, and the administration just announced several initiatives to promote greater access to paid family and medical leave, including significant new funding for states to continue developing and implementing paid leave programs of their own. The FMLA’s own history makes clear that this will help pave the way for the national standard the country needs; 23 states passed their own versions of the FMLA before the federal bill became law.
Just last year, two of the existing state programs, California and New Jersey, celebrated their 10th and fifth implementation anniversaries, respectively. And earlier this year, Rhode Island celebrated the first anniversary of its program. To mark these milestones, the National Partnership conducted a just-released analysis comparing the programs’ first years. The findings should help other states structure effective paid family leave programs and provide a foundation for future research.
But America’s working families need more than a patchwork of policies. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle need to come together, just like they did to pass the FMLA, to pass a national paid leave proposal like the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. More than 450 organizations and 63 percent of voters already support the bill. This is the right moment for Congress to act — and there are 200 million reasons why.