Today marks 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993, an important policy moment that signified a shift for women in the workforce. Before FMLA, there was little to protect the jobs of women who needed time off to care for newborns or for family members with severe illness. Women would often have to choose between caring for their families and keeping their jobs.
The Family and Medical Leave Act sought to correct these challenges by guaranteeing unpaid leave with job security for workers who needed to care for newborns, newly adopted children, and family members with serious health conditions. Since its passage, the law has had significant impact on the American workforce. Eligible women and men now have time to care for new and existing members of the family, as well as themselves, without being forced to find another job or drop out of the workforce. According to a survey released today by the Department of Labor, FMLA now covers about 59 percent of the workforce.
One of IWPR’s first publications, Unnecessary Losses: Costs to Americans of the Lack of Family and Medical Leave, published in 1990, demonstrated the benefits that the proposed policy would bring IWPR analyzed the costs to American workers of not having unpaid leave for childbirth, personal health needs, or family care giving. With this research, IWPR later testified before the U.S. Senate that, by not recognizing the need for work-life balance, established policies failed to support workers and their families and, moreover, were costly to taxpayers. This finding shifted the public debate on FMLA. Now twenty years old, FMLA has become a cornerstone of U.S. employment law and human resource policy—and remains a major piece of IWPR’s own history.
On May 1, IWPR will celebrate its 25th anniversary of making research count for women. Today, 600 publications and 30,000 pages since Unnecessary Losses, IWPR continues to be a national thought leader on how public policies affect women and their families, focusing on issues ranging from the gender wage gap, occupational segregation and discrimination, access to higher education and job training, retirement security, and the status of women in the states.
While the Family and Medical Leave Act was a major success for working women and their families, there is still more to do to ensure our leave policies address the needs of a modern workforce. Just as it did over two decades ago, IWPR continues to inform the next frontier in paid leave policy, serving as the research backbone of local efforts to adopt state-level paid family and medical leave programs. To date, California and New Jersey have implemented paid family and medical leave programs.
Jasmin Griffin is an intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She is a student at Howard University.