The signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) 25 years ago this week was a landmark moment for women, families and America’s workplace culture. Since 1993, people have taken unpaid leave under the FMLA more than 200 million times to welcome a new child, care for a sick loved one or recover from a serious medical issue without having to risk their jobs. Today, we are in the midst of another watershed moment for the country as national attention to the need for fairer, more equitable workplaces reaches historic levels. But if this national reckoning is going to bring about real and lasting change, it needs to result in policies that value women and care – and few things would bring more meaningful change than a national paid family and medical leave program.
State and local lawmakers, like private sector employers, have a critical role to play in the fight for paid leave. After all, they see firsthand the challenges working families, businesses and the economy face when people have to choose between their jobs and their health or the health of their families. New state-based data released by the National Partnership for the FMLA’s anniversary demonstrate the scope of these conflicts between work and family by state – and just how much worse it could get.
Take, for example, New Hampshire. In less than 15 years, the share of the state’s population age 65 and older will grow by nearly 45 percent. In Colorado, more than one in five workers are age 55 and older. In more than 70 percent of all Virginia households with children – more than 1.2 million homes – all parents have paying jobs. When people, and especially women, cannot take the time they need to provide and receive care, they end up leaving the workforce, forfeiting income and their retirement security. In fact, in Nevada, there is a 15-percentage point gap in labor force participation between men and women.
Considering that women, particularly women of color, are often key breadwinners for their families, in addition to being primary caregivers, paid leave means more than taking time to bond with a new child or care for aging parent – it means economic stability and a greater ability to survive life’s inevitable changes and unforeseen challenges. It is also inextricably linked to women’s health, especially in their reproductive years, at this time when access to comprehensive reproductive health care is being pushed further and further out of reach. Paid leave means women have the time and resources to choose when, and if, they want to start a family.
Already, legislators in five states – California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington – and the District of Columbia have enacted paid family and medical leave programs. New York’s program took effect on Jan. 1 and the programs in Washington state and D.C. will take effect in coming years. But the three longest-standing programs are having widespread benefits for working people and families, businesses and the states’ economies. These states are leading the way on paid leave and demonstrating what works.
Lawmakers in other states, across political and ideological spectrums, are considering paid leave proposals too. State-level proposals were introduced in 31 states in 2017 and are under active consideration in a number of states already in 2018, including in deep red states like Georgia and Mississippi, as well as in places like New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Colorado and Maine. This is a clear sign of growing consensus around the need for a paid leave policy that helps people better meet the dual demands of work and family while strengthening businesses and boosting the economy.
State lawmakers and the organizations that serve them, like the State Innovation Exchange, are playing a pivotal role in securing the progress that will ultimately lead to the national paid family and medical leave plan we need: the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. The FAMILY Act would create a national paid leave insurance program similar to those working so well in several states. The bill currently has the support of more than 170 members of Congress.
At this critical time for the country, 25 years after the FMLA, the paid leave momentum must continue. So, during this #FightingForFamilies Week of Action, share what #PaidLeaveMeans to you as part of the #FMLA25 celebration and call to action. Because fighting for families means fighting for a real national paid family and medical leave plan that doesn’t leave anyone behind. It is long past time to fulfill the FMLA’s promise of truly family friendly workplaces with paid family and medical leave for all working people.
Vicki Shabo is vice president for workplace policies and strategies at the National Partnership for Women & Families.Back