The Hill, August 8, 2014
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On Aug. 5, 1993, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) went into effect. In the 21 years since, it's been used over 100 million times, allowing many working Americans to take time off to bond with new children, or to care for themselves or family members when seriously ill or injured, without the fear of losing their jobs.
Though that is certainly something to celebrate, more than four private-sector employees in every 10 aren't even eligible for the FMLA. That's close to 50 million workers who can be fired for taking needed family or medical leave. The main reasons for this huge gap are that only firms with 50 or more employees, and only workers who have at least 1,250 hours with their current employer over the past year, are covered by the FMLA.
In addition, the FMLA guarantees just unpaid time off, which means that many employees who have the right to take family or medical leave simply can't afford to do so. My colleagues at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) looked at FMLA surveys and found that more than 2.5 million working Americans each year cannot afford to take necessary, but unpaid, leave. In fact, half of private-sector workers who needed to take leave (but did not) reported not being able to afford unpaid leave as the main reason for not taking the time off.
Job Protection Isn't Enough: Why America Needs Paid Parental Leave, a look at parental leaves since the passage of the FMLA by the Center for American Progress and the CEPR, paints a similar picture. The authors observe that not many more working men and women are taking parental leave than when the law was passed two decades ago. Less than half of those employees receive any pay during their time off. And less-educated workers, for example, are much less likely to take parental leave, reflecting other types of inequities in our economy.
The United States is the only high-income country in the world that doesn't guarantee paid family and medical leave. The International Labour Organization recently reviewed paid parental leave laws in 185 nations, and the United States stood out as one of just three — along with Papua New Guinea and Oman — that doesn't mandate paid maternity leave. The CEPR looked at medical leave in 22 developed countries and similarly discovered that the U.S. was the only nation that didn't provide any paid time off for serious illness.
Some members of Congress are working to ensure that fewer working Americans fall through the cracks, though. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill that would expand the FMLA to cover workplaces with at least 25 employees (down from the current floor of 50 employees). The CEPR has found that lowering that threshold would give more than 4.7 million workers access to job-protected family and medical leave.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) go even farther: They've introduced legislation that would provide working Americans with about two-thirds of their pay during family or medical leave. Their bills would set up an insurance program, funded by employer and employee contributions of just two-tenths of a percent of payroll, to cover such leaves.
Success stories from the states prove that such a program would work. California has been running a paid family leave program for a decade. A comprehensive analysis of the program by sociologist Ruth Milkman and economist Eileen Appelbaum finds, for example, that large majorities of employers reported negligible or positive impacts on productivity, profitability and performance. New Jersey has had such a program in place for five years, and interviews with employers reveal that the law has had little to no impact on how companies do business in the state.
The FMLA was a big step forward that's helped millions of working families cope when faced with serious health conditions, injuries incurred during military service, pregnancies, bonding with a new child or other illnesses or disabilities. But after 21 years, it's well past time for this nation to take another step and start catching up with the rest of the globe, by guaranteeing working Americans paid family and medical leave.