Press Release
20 Years of Success: New Federal Study Finds Family and Medical Leave Act Has Worked Well for Workers, Businesses But 40 Percent of Workers Not Covered, and Millions More Cannot Afford the Unpaid Leave the Law Provides

The first federal study in 13 years to examine the impact of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) finds that the law has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on workers, families and businesses. The FMLA is the only federal law ever to help workers meet the dual demands of job and family. The National Partnership for Women & Families wrote and championed the FMLA, and has led efforts to defend and expand it in states and at the federal level. The organization today hailed the results of the new Department of Labor study, Family and Medical Leave in 2012, and urged Congress to expand the law and to adopt a national paid family and medical leave program.

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the day President Bill Clinton made the FMLA the first legislation he signed into law. The FMLA allows eligible workers up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave to recover from serious medical conditions, care for a family member, or bond with a new child. Workers have used FMLA leave more than 100 million times. Since 2008, the law has allowed military families to care for injured service members for up to 26 weeks and to address certain circumstances arising from a service member’s deployment.

The Labor Department study, released this morning, interviewed more than 2,800 adults nationwide. It found that 16 percent of workers took FMLA leave within the last year, businesses have few problems implementing the law, and inability to afford unpaid leave is the primary reason workers do not take the FMLA leave they need.

“We intended the FMLA to be the first step on the road to a family friendly nation,” said National Partnership for Women & Families President Debra L. Ness. “It’s had an enormous impact, letting tens of millions of workers take leave when they needed it the most, and changing the culture in this country. Those are women who needed medical care during difficult pregnancies, fathers who took time to care for children fighting cancer, adult sons and daughters caring for frail parents, and workers taking time to recover from their own serious illnesses. Because of the FMLA, their health insurance continued and their jobs were waiting when they returned to work. The law has been a huge success but it’s time — past time — to take the next step. We are asking Congress to expand the law so more workers can take leave for more reasons, and to adopt a national paid family and medical leave program.”

Key findings from the new Department of Labor study reveal:

  • Women made up 56 percent of employees who took leave in the past year. The rate of leave taking among men has increased in small but steady increments in the 20 years since the FMLA was enacted.
  • A majority of employees reported taking leave for their own illness (57 percent). Twenty-two percent said they took leave for reasons related to a new child (including pregnancy, birth, adoption or foster care), and 19 percent reported taking leave to care for a parent, spouse or child with a serious health condition.
  • Most leaves were relatively short. Forty percent of workers reported they were away from work for 10 days or less; 70 percent were back at work within 40 days. Only women who took leave to care for a new child reported taking longer leaves, averaging about 58 days; men who took leave to care for a new child took average leaves of about 20 days.
  • Two-thirds of workers (66 percent) reported receiving at least some pay while on leave. However, there are significant gaps that hurt middle and lower income families: 54 percent of workers in middle and lower income families (median family income less than $62,500 per year) reported that they did not receive any pay while on leave, compared to just 18 percent of workers in higher income families.
  • Nearly half of workers who needed leave but did not take it (46 percent) said they were unable to afford unpaid leave. Nearly one-fifth (17 percent) were worried they might lose their jobs, despite the FMLA’s guarantee of job protection.
  • Women made up 64 percent of those who needed but did not take leave. Workers of Hispanic background, those who are not white, those with earnings below $35,000 per year and unmarried workers were more likely than their non-Hispanic, white, wealthier and married counterparts to need leave but not take it.
  • 90 percent of worksites covered by the FMLA reported that compliance with the FMLA has had a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on “employee productivity, absenteeism, career advancement and morale, as well as the business’ profitability.” More than one-third (37 percent) reported a positive effect.i

The FMLA applies only to employers with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius and people who have worked at their current employer for at least one year and 1,250 hours within the past year. The definition of “family” under the law is narrow; FMLA leave is not available to caregivers of parents-in-law, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, domestic partners or same-sex spouses. The FMLA does not provide leave for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. And it does not provide any wages during periods of leave.

“This new study from the Department of Labor makes a compelling case to expand the law and adopt a paid leave plan,” Ness added. In particular:

  • This study confirms that Congress should revisit the FMLA’s employer-size and employee eligibility requirements. The Department of Labor study estimates that two-thirds of workers (67 percent) would be covered by the FMLA if the law applied to worksites with 20 or more employees. Sixty-three percent of workers would be eligible if employees were required to work 780 hours in the previous year instead of the 1,250 hours, as required now.
  • Congress should consider a national paid family and medical leave insurance program. The Department of Labor’s survey results show the hardships workers face when they cannot afford leave without pay, take a shortened leave, or jeopardize their families’ financial stability while on leave. Economic security policies, including paid family and medical leave insurance, have overwhelming voter support, according to polling commissioned by the National Partnership. And states have model paid leave programs that are working well. Creating a national paid leave insurance program would ease burdens for both employees who need paid leave and employers who cannot afford the full cost of offering paid leave to their workers.

Paid family leave programs are working well in California and New Jersey, but such a program has not been adopted at the federal level.

The National Partnership will host a congressional reception with current and retired lawmakers who are champions of family leave today, Monday, at 5:00pm in the Capitol Visitor Center.

The full study by the Department of Labor can be found here »

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iThe worksite survey provides multiple units of analysis. The findings summarized here reflect worksites that report they are covered by the FMLA and report having 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. The survey report refers to these worksites as “50/75” worksites. In addition, the survey analysis provides a choice of two weights. Here, we report “weighted by worksite” figures, which gives each surveyed worksite equal weight. This seems the better method for capturing the experience of the average worksite on the particular measures we highlight here.

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About the National Partnership for Women & Families

The National Partnership for Women & Families is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to promoting fairness in the workplace, reproductive health and rights, access to quality, affordable health care and policies that help all people meet the dual demands of work and family.

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