While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has helped more than 100,000 families take the time they need to care for their families, a striking 40% of the U.S. workforce isn’t eligible for the 12 weeks of unpaid leave the FMLA provides because their employers have fewer than 50 employees, or because they haven’t been working for their employers for at least a year and put in a minimum of 1,250 hours. Millions more are eligible, but they simply can’t afford to take unpaid time off.
Hope from Texas wasn’t eligible to take FMLA leave when her daughter was born because her employer was too small. Fortunately, her employer allowed her to take eight weeks of unpaid leave — but there was no guarantee that her job would be there when she returned, and she had to rush back to work despite medical complications, post-partum depression, and a blood infection, because she couldn’t afford to lose any more income.
Stephanie from Wisconsin was the sole breadwinner for her family when her twins were born three months early. She was hospitalized for two months and wasn’t eligible for the FMLA. Since she couldn’t afford to lose any income by taking unpaid leave, she went back to work right away — commuting two hours each day so she could spend nights at the hospital.
Amber from Georgia was only able to take six days off of work when her son was born because she didn’t qualify to take FMLA leave and her husband just lost his job. And Claudia, from Illinois, was eligible for FMLA leave when she had her second child, but she could only afford to take three weeks. When she went back to work, she was so stressed that she found herself unable to pump breast milk.
These are just a handful of stories that make clear what we at the National Partnership for Women & Families have known for two decades: The FMLA provides an important safety net for many workers. But it was always meant to be just a first step toward a truly family-friendly America. People should not have to choose between a paycheck and their own health or the health of their families when illness strikes or a new baby arrives. But in our country, they do. And families are suffering as a result.
It is long past time for lawmakers to take the next step by expanding the FMLA and establishing the national paid family and medical leave insurance program the nation urgently needs.
Tomorrow, we’ll share the real, tangible benefits — for moms, babies, and even employers — of paid family leave, along with the ongoing efforts to expand the FMLA.
Debra L. Ness is the president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, which drafted and led the fight to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) 20 years ago. The organization promotes fairness in the workplace, access to quality affordable health care, and policies that help women and men meet the dual demands of work and family. For more than three decades, Ness has been a strong advocate for fairness and social justice, possessing a unique understanding of the issues that face women and families at home, in the workplace, and in the health care arena.