New Department of Labor Family and Medical Leave Data Illustrates Gaps in Coverage, Threatening the Financial Security of American Workers

The Department of Labor recently released the findings from the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Wave 4 Survey, which demonstrates the continuing need for and benefits of the program as well as the significant inequities in access. The FMLA provides eligible workers with up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to address a serious personal medical condition, bond with a new child or care for a family member with a serious health condition, and ensure that those with health insurance keep it during their leave.

The periodic survey found that only 56 percent of workers are eligible for job-protected leave under the FMLA, which only applies to employers with 50 or more employees, and excludes many workers who are newer to their jobs or work part-time. Moreover, the findings indicate that leave was fully paid for only four in ten workers and people of color were more likely to experience an unmet need. The study, which was conducted in 2018 with more than 4,000 U.S. employees and more than 2,000 U.S. private-sector businesses, provides the first new data on the Family and Medical Leave Act since 2012.

“The new DOL data on the Family and Medical Leave Act exposes the significant gaps that continue to exist in family and medical leave access in our country,” said National Partnership President Debra L. Ness. “COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on the need for workers to be able to take time off to care for themselves or their family members without missing a paycheck. Yet, far too many Americans do not have access to take paid family and medical leave, with people of color and low-income individuals facing the greatest barriers to access. Congress has taken an important step to expand access during this pandemic, but this crisis has made clear that universal paid family and medical leave is needed now more than ever.

Key Takeaways

Limited Coverage and Eligibility Continue to Limit FMLA's Effectiveness

  • Just 56 percent of workers in the U.S. are covered by and eligible for leave under the FMLA, a decline from 59 percent in 2012. There are clear racial inequities in eligibility, with only 52 percent of Latinx workers and 53 percent of Asian workers eligible, compared to 57 percent of Black workers and 58 percent of white workers. In addition, as detailed below, lack of pay poses disproportionate challenges for Black and Latinx workers.

Workers Continue to Need Comprehensive Leave, and An Inclusive Family Definition Would Help.

  • Fifteen percent of all workers take FMLA leave each year.
  • Just over half (51 percent) of FMLA-type leaves taken were for a worker's own medical condition. Another quarter (25 percent) were for a new child, and about one in five (19 percent were to care for a family member's serious health condition.
  • Five percent of leaves were to care for family members not covered by the FMLA (Unlike previous years, this report included a count of FMLA-type leaves that were taken for purposes not covered by FMLA.)

Lack of Pay Continues to Challenge Workers, Especially Black and Latinx Workers.

  • Just four in ten workers (42 percent) who took FMLA leave reported receiving full pay. Just under one -quarter (24 percent) received some pay, and more than one-third (34 percent) received no pay while on leave.
  • Among workers who received pay while on leave, 8 percent report that they received pay from a state paid leave program.
  • Workers with low wages — those least able to afford an unpaid leave — were least likely to receive pay while on FMLA leave, with more than six in ten (61 percent) receiving no pay. And two-thirds of workers (67 percent) who did not receive full pay reported difficulty "making ends meet."

Unmet Needs for Leave Are Significant and Inequitable

  • Seven percent of workers reported an unmet need for leave — up from five percent in 2012 — and the most common reason for unmet need remains that a worker could not afford unpaid leave.
  • The survey confirms that access to leave is a racial equity issue: More than one in ten Black workers (11 percent), one in ten Latinx workers (10 percent) reported an unmet need for leave, compared to 6 percent of white workers.
  • Nearly 12 percent of workers categorized as "Other" — a group including Native American and Pacific Islander workers as well as those reporting more than one race — reported unmet need. Women (9 percent) and single parents (16 percent) were also especially likely to report unmet need for leave.

About the National Partnership

The National Partnership for Women & Families is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to promoting fairness in the workplace, reproductive health and rights, access to quality, affordable health care and policies that help all people meet the dual demands of work and family. More information is available at NationalPartnership.org.

Media Contact

Amaya Smith
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