The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) went into effect twenty-one years ago today. On this anniversary, many are calling to expand the law to meet the needs of today’s families.

Signed by President Clinton, the FMLA requires that certain employees receive job-protected unpaid leave to care for themselves, an immediate family member, a newborn, or a newly adopted child. Since taking effect, some 100 million US workers have been able to take unpaid leave, and most employers have reported no negative impact on business profitability or productivity because of the law.

Now, 21 years later, the US Department of Labor (DOL) is seeking to update the law to extend FMLA benefits to eligible same-sex and common law couples. The DOL proposal to change the definition of “spouse” follows the US Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor, which found section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), prohibiting state recognized same-sex married couples from receiving federal benefits, unconstitutional.

Although the proposed change would extend current FMLA benefits to some, there are no immediate plans, legislative or otherwise, to expand coverage or to mandate paid leave.

Most worksites are still not covered by the FMLA. The law applies only to public agencies and private sector employers with 50 or more employees. And many workers are not covered by the law. A 2012 study found that around 40 percent of the workforce is not eligible. FMLA only covers employees who have worked for the same employer for at least one year and who worked 1,250 hours the previous year.

Testifying last week before a Senate Subcommittee hearing on the need for paid leave, Jeannine Sato, explained that as an employee of a federally-funded nonprofit, she  expected to use FMLA to cover her maternity leave. “I drafted a multi-page document about how I was going to cover my job responsibilities during my 12 weeks of maternity leave, which I assumed was covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act.” When she presented the plan to her employer, she learned that she was not covered by FMLA.

“In addition to refusing my leave, my employer denied me a flexible work environment after the birth. That meant no working from home, and no compressed workweek. So I had to return to work full-time after only six weeks of medical leave, after using all my vacation and sick time, or risk losing my job. I am the breadwinner in my family, and I needed my job,” explained Sato in  her written testimony. “So, after six weeks of round the clock baby care, I reluctantly dragged my exhausted, sore, depressed body back to work to sit in an office writing documents and checking emails, while my newborn baby was at home. This was an incredibly difficult time physically and emotionally for me, my marriage and my family.”

Even if someone is eligible for FMLA leave, it may not be affordable. Nearly half of workers with an unmet need for leave explain that they cannot afford to take time off. Only 12 percent of US workers have access to paid family leave, and fewer than 40 percent have paid medical leave. That means some workers – particularly women and low wage workers – are just one illness or birth away from financial disaster.

The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act, introduced by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in December 2013, would allow employees to earn up to 12 weeks of paid family leave each year through the creation of a national insurance fund. Employers and employees would contribute to the fund through a new Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave, which would be a subdivision of the Social Security Administration. Anyone eligible for Social Security benefits would also be eligible for the new paid family leave benefit.

“Motherhood should not lead to poverty,” Feminist Majority Policy and Research Director Gaylynn Burroughs wrote on the Feminist Majority blog. “Caring for a loved one should not mean insurmountable debt and bankruptcy. Lost income combined with new medical costs can be financially devastating to a family at a time when they may be most vulnerable and unable to recover.”

Media Resources: US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, Subcommittee on Children and Families 7/30/14; Feminist Newswire 6/26/14, 2/5/14, 12/12/13; Abt Associates 9/13/13; Feminist Majority Blog 12/12/13; National Partnership for Women & Families 12/12/13; US Department of Labor; Congress.gov

Take Action! Urge your representatives to support the FAMILY Act.

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