Let’s Celebrate 27 Years of Unpaid Leave

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act isn't perfect, but it was a start.

I started working on paid leave issues in 2011, nearly seven months before my first child was born. Until then, I had never thought about how essential a paid family and medical leave program could be. It had not occurred to me that I may suffer from medical complications, or, God forbid, that my baby may not be healthy.

I also hadn’t considered that I might not have the employer support or resources to spend a few months with my new baby after his birth. Similarly, I hadn’t thought about “when” or “if” one of my parents fell ill, even though I knew good and well it would be me as the oldest daughter to care for them.

Luckily for me and my baby, the birthing process was smooth as it could be.  Mom and baby were healthy and glowing and I was able to stay home with him for a good chunk of time because my partner and I had the resources and were diligent in putting savings aside. I was lucky.

I was late coming to the movement to ensure that all workers and families have paid leave to cover a serious medical condition, to bond with a new baby, or care for an ill family member.  Advocates had already been hard at work for years. Because of that advocacy, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, celebrates its 27th birthday today. It is a program that has benefited many since its inception in 1993.

But the federal program is lacking!

For one, it is not a paid leave program, and it only covers employees who’ve worked for over a year and  at least 1,250 hours in a company with 50 or more employees.  The federal FMLA leaves out 42% of the workforce, including many lower-wage workers and workers of color.

The unfairness is clear — if you are lucky, your employer offers a paid leave benefit. If you are not, your financial security is at stake if you have an urgent health or family matter that requires you to be away from work.  Luck should have nothing to do with it.

The work of advocates has paved the way for states to push the envelope and do more.

Since the inception of the federal paid family leave act, nine states (California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, the District of Columbia, Washington, Massachusetts, Oregon and Connecticut) have passed comprehensive paid medical and family leave programs. California was the first.

We passed paid family and medical leave in 2017. We could build on what the earlier states had done, so at the time it was one of the strongest programs in the country.  Our neighbors in Oregon passed a stronger policy in 2019.

Since January 1, when Washington began accepting applications for PFML benefits, over 22,000 have applied! As one state official stated, the “pent-up demand is clear.”

Families need economic security during life’s toughest moments.  I know I did when my dad was in his last stages of life.  Having to take four weeks off to care for him meant the added stress of putting off bills, shifting payments around and not knowing when I would be back at work. It was tough. And mostly families would agree that worrying about money during a family medical crisis is the last thing they want to do.

So let’s cheer 27 years of FMLA.  And let’s push congress to get busy and pass the FAMILY Act to bring PAID family and medical leave to all workers in every state. Meanwhile, let’s all join in the movement and help other states pass paid family and medical leave programs for all their workers.  Until Congress acts, we’ll have to keep leading the way in our states.

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