National Partnership for Women & Families

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Vicki Shabo, Director of Work and Family Programs

From the desk of ... Vicki Shabo

19 Years

February 5, 2012 | Work and Family

That's how long it's been since the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law. Today is the 19th anniversary of the day then-President Clinton made the FMLA the very first bill he signed. An entire generation has grown up with the FMLA in place, giving many workers the ability to take job-protected leave to recover from illness or care for a sick family member or new baby.

In that time, workers have used FMLA leave more than 100 million times. The law's impact has been massive and overwhelmingly positive. It's meant parents could take job-protected time off to help their child, spouse or parent recover from serious illnesses; workers could take time to recover from heart attacks, cancer or other serious health conditions; and tens of millions of moms and dads could take time off to bond with new babies. The FMLA meant those workers kept the health insurance they had, and had jobs to go back to.

It was a groundbreaking advance, the first national law ever to help this country's workers meet the dual demands of work and family. It very quickly proved the doomsday-predicting, nay-saying opponents wrong while transforming our workplaces, changing our culture, and making family friendly workplaces a shared national goal.

Since the FMLA became law, we've seen some further progress. The law was expanded to help military families a few years ago. And this past week, the Obama administration enhanced the military family provisions to allow military family caregivers to take leave before, during and after their loved ones' deployment. That was a terrific step forward, and we applaud the administration for this smart, compassionate move.

But workers in this nation need even more, and it's time for Congress to step up to the proverbial plate. Only about half of workers are eligible for the unpaid leave the FMLA provides. We need Congress to expand access to the FMLA by passing the Family and Medical Leave Enhancement Act (HR1440) which would amend the law to cover businesses with 25 or more employees, instead of those with 50 or more employees, as is the case now. We need Congress to pass the Family and Medical Leave Inclusion Act (HR2364/S1283) which would expand the definition of family member to allow FMLA leave to care for a domestic partner, parent-in-law, adult child, sibling, grandchild or grandparent.

And we need paid leave. A Census Bureau report issued last November underscored the urgent need for a national standard of paid family leave. It found that use of paid leave among first-time mothers has been largely stagnant for nearly a decade, and the divide based on socioeconomic status is striking. Two-thirds of first-time mothers with a bachelor's degree or higher take paid leave, according to the report, compared to only one in five mothers without a high school diploma. We know that those who don't take paid leave don't have access to it - and they and their families suffer as a result.

It's time for a national paid leave standard, so all workers can access some wages when they need time out of the workforce. A study conducted by the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, released just a few weeks ago, provided conclusive evidence of what a good idea that is. Commissioned by the National Partnership with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the new report offers conclusive evidence that providing paid family leave to workers leads to positive economic outcomes not just for working families, but also for businesses and the public.

There's no reason to wait. This year, with candidates for office at all levels creating a public conversation about jobs, let's all speak out and send a clear message that it's time to put family friendly policies in place. That means expanding the FMLA and adopting a national standard for paid family leave. Now.

To take action and send Congress a message, sign our petition for paid leave at www.paidleave.org/petition. Please share this link widely on Facebook and Twitter!


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