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Family leave under FMLA is out-of-reach for too many

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Evaluating Family and Medical Leave Insurance for Washington State

The federal government enacted the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993 to ensure up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave per year for workers to recover from their own serious health condition, bond with a new child, or care for a seriously ill spouse, child or parent. The law also provides job protection while eligible employees are on leave.

Despite setting an important precedent, FMLA’s reach has proven limited. While most employers have been able to comply with FMLA standards, a large sector of the workforce is ineligible for leave. Moreover, many workers simply cannot afford unpaid leave, even to provide necessary care to loved ones.

Leave under FMLA is available only to people working in businesses with 50+ employees, who have been with their current employer for a full year, working a minimum of 1,250 hours in the preceding 12 months. These restrictions mean little more than half the workforce has access to FMLA – and just 20% of new moms.

The policy is further limited by the economic burden unpaid leave places upon workers and their families. U.S. Department of Labor surveys have found that among eligible workers who had a need for leave but did not take it, nearly 78% reported they could not afford to take unpaid time away from work. Employers, for their part, report little difficulty with FMLA.

In surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 90% of employers reported the law had “positive” or “no noticeable” effects on their business’ profitability and growth. Further, the majority of employers were able to temporarily reassign the work of an employee on leave to others, rather than recruit and train a short-term replacement.

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