This past weekend marked a milestone anniversary for a historic piece of legislation: the Family and Medical Leave Act, or the FMLA, as it’s widely known. This law – which was signed by President Bill Clinton on Feb. 5, 1993 – allows millions of workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family or medical reasons during moments of great need with the peace of mind of knowing they won’t lose their jobs. As the FMLA turns 30, we should use this opportunity to celebrate its legacy – and reflect upon how much further our country still has to go when it comes to supporting workers in balancing their personal and professional lives.
The FMLA was a groundbreaking achievement. Since 1993, Americans have relied on the FMLA on nearly 463 million occasions to care for themselves or their loved ones. In 2022 alone, the FMLA supported nearly 15 million workers. These astounding numbers illustrate the enormous impact of the law – and the enormous gap it helped fill.
The FMLA is important for many reasons, but especially because it established an essential baseline standard to help workers meet their obligations at home and on the job without jeopardizing their financial security.
Even more broadly, the FMLA fundamentally changed the conversation around caregiving and work – and how protections in support of caregiving are integral to what our workplaces should aspire to be.
The law makes clear that the lack of access to leave is not only an individual problem, but also a workplace problem, an equity problem, and a problem which affects our entire society.
In doing so, it addressed a significant barrier that prevented millions of people – women, in particular – from fully participating in our economy, often due to long-entrenched biases around perceived gender roles.
Take just one example. In 1993, an executive was quoted as saying: “If you’re an employer, you will look at a young woman and say, ‘Can we really entrust her to do crucial responsibilities that no one else can do because she’s going to take three months off [after giving birth]?'”
The National Partnership for Women & Families – the organization I have the privilege to now lead – understood back then that the outdated mindset voiced by this executive would keep shutting women out of important job opportunities. And fixing this problem was one of the key motivations behind the FMLA.
Back in 1984, when we were known as the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, our staff spearheaded the early drafting of what would eventually become the FMLA.