Family and Medical Leave Act’s 16th Anniversary

February 05, 2009

Today marks the 16th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, a law that AAUW advocated for for more than a decade. FMLA provides employees of businesses with 50 or more workers with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child; to care for a sick child, spouse, or parent; or to recover from personal serious medical issues. However, many Americans don’t benefit from the law because they can’t afford to take unpaid leave. While today we look back on the law’s achievement with satisfaction, the accomplishment is a bittersweet reminder of how far American working families still have to go.

In the midst of this winter flu and cold season, FMLA is like coming into work sick. It’s still accomplishing something, to be sure, but it’s not ideal. And millions of Americans are coming into work sick because they have no other option; nearly half of American private-sector workers, including 21 million women, have no paid sick days. Since FMLA passed, some state laws have further improved working conditions. For example, in 2002, Gov. Gray Davis (D-CA) signed legislation allowing California workers six weeks of paid leave, at a pay rate of 55 to 60 percent, to care for a new child or seriously ill relative.

Nevertheless, family and personal sick leave remains elusive. Despite the rocky economy, America is still one of the world’s richest countries. Sadly, the United States lags drastically behind many high-, middle-, and even low-income nations in providing family-friendly workplaces. A 2008 study by the Institute for Health and Social Policy found that only five of the 173 countries surveyed did not guarantee at least some form of paid maternity leave to its workers. These countries are Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, and our very own USA. Illustrious company, to say the least.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Thanks to the hard work of AAUW and coalition members, the House passed the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act last June. Once passed by the new Congress, this act will provide federal workers up to four weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. The hope is to expand such legislation to all Americans, not just federal workers. AAUW also supports the Healthy Families Act, which guarantees paid sick days to employees. President Obama has even created the new White House Task Force on Middle Class Working Families to be, in the words of Vice President Biden, “an important vehicle to assess new and existing policies across the board and determine if they are helping or hurting the middle class.”

With such FMLA expansion on the legislative horizon, tomorrow’s working families can have a brighter future than they do today. But we must remember not to rest on the laurels of past successes. Today’s anniversary must be a reminder not only of what we’ve achieved but also of what’s left to be done.

This post was written by Emily Pfefer, AAUW Public Policy and Government Relations fellow.

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By:   |   February 05, 2009

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