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The FMLA: Old Enough to Vote, but with Room to Grow

On the occasion of its anniversary, IWPR takes the opportunity to outline the main characteristics of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and its impact over the past 18 years.

by Kevin Miller

Saturday, February 5 marks the 18th anniversary of the day that President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 into law. The law requires that employers with 50 or more employees provide 12 weeks of job-protected leave to any employee with one year of job tenure who has worked 1,250 hours within the past year. The law does not require employers to pay employees during this leave, though employees can substitute existing sources of paid leave such as sick days and vacation time in order to receive pay during FMLA leave.

 

Job-Protected Leave

In the 18 years that the FMLA has protected the right of (some) American workers to take job-protected leave, it has helped millions: mothers taking maternity leave and new child leave, fathers taking new child leave, and workers taking medical leave or leave to care for ill or injured family members (a child, spouse, or parent). It remains the only federal law that gives Americans a right to time off work, helping Americans balance work and family.

Gender Neutral

Though FMLA leave can be taken for maternity-disability reasons, it can also be taken to care for a new child regardless of whether that child was born to the employee, born to the employee’s spouse, adopted, or fostered. Nowhere in FMLA is access restricted by gender since the law applies equally to men and women.

Limited Eligibility

A 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Labor found that in 2005, 76.1 million workers were eligible for FMLA-protected leave, or 54 percent of the workforce. Of the 65.6 million ineligible workers, 47.3 million worked at establishments too small to be covered and 18.3 million lacked the job tenure or hours-in-job to be eligible.

Unpaid Leave

The United States is one of only five nations (along with Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea) whose workers lack a legal right to paid maternity leave. Australia, which previously guaranteed only unpaid leave, has introduced paid parental leave this year. Some American workers who are eligible to use FMLA leave are unable to afford taking unpaid time off from work: a 2000 survey commissioned by the Department of Labor found that among workers who said they needed FMLA leave but did not take it, 78 percent said that they could not afford to do so without pay.

Unequal Outcomes

Despite the gender neutral language of the FMLA, both the eligibility restrictions and the unpaid nature of the leave contribute to gender inequality. Men and women in the workforce are equally likely to work at a covered employer, but women with young children are 16 percent less likely to meet eligibility requirements than are men with young children. Among eligible workers with young children, however, women are more likely than men to take leave—76 percent compared to 45 percent. The unpaid nature of FMLA leave means that married couples may need to choose one parent to take leave while the other continues to work (and receive pay).

The average full-time female worker made 77 cents on the dollar compared to male workers in 2009, so it often makes financial sense for wives to take leave (or leave work entirely) while husbands remain on the job, a strategy that can leave women earning less for years after they eventually re-enter the labor force.

Room to Grow

Passage of the FMLA took eight years of hard work by advocates, researchers, and policymakers. During that time, provisions for paid leave were removed from the proposed legislation as a compromise, with the implicit promise that the law would be revisited and strengthened over time. The FMLA has been amended in recent years, but only to improve access to unpaid leave for airline employees, and military personnel and their families.

Successful efforts to provide paid leave have been limited to the five states with Temporary Disability Insurance systems (California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island), with California and New Jersey expanding their systems to include paid family leave. A recent study of California’s paid family leave system found that implementation of the system had minimal impact on employers and greatly expanded leave for workers in low-quality jobs.

 

The signing of the FMLA in 1993 was a watershed event for American workers, finally providing Americans a job-protected right to time off work. The FMLA has helped millions of Americans take leave from work to care for a new child or family member. However, millions of Americans are not covered by or eligible under the FMLA, and some who are eligible cannot afford to take unpaid time off work. Advocates and policymakers continue to work to expand access to leave that is both job-protected and paid, with the hope that one day Americans will no longer be forced to choose between their jobs and their families.

Kevin Miller is a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

One thought on “The FMLA: Old Enough to Vote, but with Room to Grow

  1. The comparisons to other countries are fascinating. I had no idea paternity leave (required in 65 countries! 14+ weeks in 31!) and paid annual leave (required in 137 countries!) were so widespread.

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