The Family and Medical Leave Act at 20: A Record of Success, But More Can Be Done

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Written by CEPR   
Thursday, 28 February 2013 13:45

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) celebrated its 20th anniversary this month. It was a huge step forward for the U.S., which lags behind nearly all other high-income countries in enabling people to take the time they need, without worrying that they may be fired from their jobs, to care for themselves and their families when faced with serious illness or welcoming a new child.

The FMLA has been used 100 million times in the last 20 years, benefiting families and without unduly burdening employers. Yet there remain millions of Americans who are not covered by the FMLA – they can still be fired if they get sick, have a baby, or need to care for a seriously ill family member. And millions more are eligible but do not take the time off because they do not know they are eligible or can’t afford to go without pay.

Department of Labor surveys of experiences with the FMLA, released earlier this month, find ways to improve the effectiveness and increase the coverage of family and medical leave for American families. CEPR senior economist Eileen Appelbaum recently wrote a series of blog posts to review these findings of the FMLA surveys and draw lessons about what to do next.

Part 1 showed that about a third of all workers still have not heard about the Act. More surprising, perhaps, is the finding that a significant share of employers who are covered by the FMLA do not comply with all of its provisions. Nearly a quarter of work sites subject to the FMLA, employing nearly a tenth of all workers, do not know that the FMLA applies to them. One in five work sites covered by the FMLA do not permit employees to take leave for one or more FMLA qualifying reasons for leave. And nearly a third of workers are employed at these work sites.  A greater emphasis on outreach, education and enforcement can increase the number of employees able to take a family or medical leave.

Part 2 discussed that 20 years of experience with the FMLA has created the beginnings of a culture change among employers. Many businesses that are too small to be covered by the FMLA either believe that they are covered and offer leaves for FMLA-qualified reasons to their employees or, even knowing they are not required to do so, allow workers to take leave for many of the FMLA-qualified reasons. So it seems that extending the FMLA to cover work sites with fewer than 50 workers would not be a heavy lift for smaller businesses. Expanding the coverage of the FMLA to smaller businesses would level the playing field for these good employers.

Part 3 documented the unequal access of workers to employer-provided pay during FMLA leaves, mostly cobbled together from paid time off, paid sick days, and paid vacation benefits that are far less available to worker in low-paid and low-status jobs. A paid leave insurance program similar to those in California and New Jersey would narrow the gap in access to pay during a family or medical leave between workers in high-paid and low-paid jobs and help reduce inequality without burdening employers.

The final entry in the series examined the experiences of employers with the FMLA and found that it’s basically a non-event for them. In other words, the warnings from business lobbyists that it would impose burdens and lead to fraud and abuse have proven to be unwarranted. More than 9 out of 10 of covered employers reported either no noticeable or a positive effect from the FMLA. Less than 2 percent reported any confirmed cases of misuse, and only 1 in 40 report suspicion of misuse of FMLA leaves. Most covered work sites found it easy to administer and comply with the FMLA; more than 8 in 10 employers stated that compliance was easy or had no noticeable effect.

Overall, the most important takeaway from the DOL surveys of employee and employer experiences with the Family and Medical Leave Act is that it has greatly benefited workers who have access to job protected leave to care for their families without unduly burdening employers, for whom it has largely been a non-event. Expanding coverage to worksites with fewer than 50 employees will not be a heavy lift for small employers, many of whom already allow employees to take leaves for FMLA-qualifying reasons. A Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program to provide paid leaves ease the financial burden on the many families that do not have access to employer-provided pay when they take leave and reduce the barrier to caring for families for the four percent of workers who forgo leave when their family needs them because they can't afford to take an unpaid leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act has been a great first step, but America can do better.

Tags: employers | FMLA | paid family leave | work/life | workers