National Partnership for Women & Families

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Vicki Shabo, Director of Work and Family Programs

From the desk of ... Vicki Shabo

FMLA: After 17 Years, It's Time to Take the Next Step

February 5, 2010 | Work and Family

The Family and Medical Leave Act turns 17 today.

At the National Partnership, we are like proud parents. We remember the long fight to pass it, and the moment on February 5, 1993 when we stood beside President Clinton as he made it the very first bill he signed. For the first time, we had a national law to address the challenges facing workers who struggle to meet their job and family commitments.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was a huge step. It meant that millions of workers could take unpaid, but job-protected, leave to recover from illness or care for a sick family member or bond with a new baby or new foster or adopted child. It meant fewer workers had to make impossible choices when illness struck or babies came.

But it was intended as a first step in a national commitment to ensuring that workers are able to meet their responsibilities to their families as well as their employers.

We've yet to take the next one.

To be fair, we've made some progress. In the last two years, certain new categories of workers -- members of the military, military families, and flight crews -- gained FMLA protection.

But on the 17th birthday of the FMLA, when seven in ten working families with children have all adults in the labor force, one in four workers have elder-care responsibilities, and the average couple in this country works close to 90 hours a week combined, we need swift, concerted action to help workers meet their work and family obligations.

Fortunately, there are signs that the federal government is moving in the right direction. The President's proposed fiscal year 2011 budget and the Department of Labor's (DOL's) 2011 strategic priorities recognize the demands on families and working caregivers.

Here's what we'd like to see:

Paid Family and Medical Leave. The biggest barrier to taking family and medical leave is the inability to forgo a paycheck. Two states -- California and New Jersey -- have paid family leave insurance programs up and running. Washington State approved a program in 2007 but has yet to implement it for lack of start-up funds; other states have been slow to follow suit for the same reason. But there is good news. Just this week, President Obama proposed a FY2011 budget with a State Paid Leave Grant program, which would set aside $50 million for states that implement their own paid leave programs. This funding would be a critical first step to expand access to paid family leave. Congressional proposals to develop a national family leave insurance system or to provide significantly more in start-up funding for state paid leave programs would do even more.

FMLA Expansion. Affordability aside, not all workers or workplaces are covered by the FMLA, which doesn't extend to particular types of leave that workers commonly need. Bills now before Congress would extend FMLA access to people who work for smaller companies and to employees who worked only part time during the prior year, which would expand the law's protection to more low-wage workers. Other proposed legislation would extend FMLA leave to grandparents, grandchildren, and domestic partners or same sex spouses; to domestic violence and sexual assault victims; and to parents who need to attend routine medical appointments or parent-teacher conferences.

FMLA Restoration. The Bush Administration put regulations in place that make it harder for workers to take the leave the FMLA provides. The Department of Labor has yet to revise or reverse those regulations. Fixing these regulations is straightforward and should be a priority.

Current, Comprehensive, and Routinely Collected Data. The government last collected comprehensive FMLA data in 2000 - a full decade ago. The lack of recent data makes it impossible to know either how the FMLA serves workers or how to fails to serve their needs. The President's proposed budget includes a small increase in funding for DOL to investigate the feasibility of collecting data on work-family "balance" issues. In addition to adding a standard series of questions about family leave-taking and caregiving to ongoing government surveys, policymakers and advocates need updated, comprehensive data to so that public policies can better reflect caregivers' needs.

To ensure that workers are able to fulfill their commitments at home and at work while maintaining their family's economic security, give the FMLA a birthday present and take action now.


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