What We’re Learning from FMLA Thirty Years On

30 balloons and streamers celebrate 30 years of FMLA
Photo by Marina Barcelos via Unsplash adapted by CPLL for FMLA

Celebrating FMLA and 30 Years of UNPAID Job-Protected Leave

At the Center for Parental Leave Leadership, we’re reflecting on how far we’ve come toward economic and health justice in the last three decades since the Family Medical and Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law, while also looking to the future of paid family and medical leave in the U.S. 

Did you know:

  • FMLA is NOT paid leave – it is unpaid job protection and we are still the only industrialized country in the world without a federal paid leave policy.
  • This results in 25% (!) of birthing parents being forced back to work to pay their bills within 2 weeks of giving birth.
  • In the absence of a federal policy, companies and states have been forced to take matters into their own hands. We now have 11 States + DC with paid leave policies – which is great…. BUT… that also means we have 11 States + DC with completely different paid leave policies, making it nearly impossible for employers (and parents) to navigate and figure out what to do.

Read on for more about this important 30 year milestone and how CPLL elevates companies as part of the solution.

What is FMLA? 

The Family and Medical Leave Act, most often known as FMLA, was the first national law of its kind to help workers meet the dual demands of work and family. Drafted by the National Partnership for Women & Families (NPWF) and signed by President Clinton in 1993, FMLA provides a critical policy framework for meeting families’ needs by guaranteeing eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid job protected leave each year to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child or a seriously ill family member, or to recover from their own serious health conditions, including pregnancy.

How has FMLA helped American families?

For 30 years, FMLA has enabled workers to care for themselves and their loved ones without jeopardizing their jobs, which improves economic security. Research by the NPWF estimates that the FMLA has been used nearly 463 million (!) times by working people who needed to care for their own health or the health of their families. 

How does FMLA fall short?

While FMLA was groundbreaking and we are grateful it exists, it was also the result of a compromise that resulted in it being passed as unpaid leave protection – which means it was a great first step, but it doesn’t meet the needs of America’s working families today. There are additional restrictions under FMLA which result in only ~56% of America’s workforce having access to this unpaid leave protection, and many of those who do have access can’t fully utilize it because they can’t afford the unpaid time off from work. 

The limited patchwork of existing state level paid leave policies meant that in 2022, more than 113 million people were excluded from paid leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These disparities disproportionately affect groups that are already traditionally marginalized , including low-wage, LGBTQ, and non-white workers which underscores the importance of paid leave as a social justice and equity issue.

Who has access to paid leave?

While progress has been made in the past few decades, whether a person has any paid family and medical leave depends on factors like the state and city laws where they live and the policies where they work (see https://www.abetterbalance.org/know-your-rights/ to find out what worker rights laws are in place in your state). Even though this patchwork solution causes its own set of very real problems, it is important to acknowledge the visionary leadership it has taken to pass paid family and medical leave. 

Kudo’s to the hard work of advocates, companies, and families in: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington state, along with Washington, D.C..  There are MANY other states who are going to be close behind.

In addition to state governments and the military, businesses have learned that paid leave is a powerful attraction and retention tool. The tide has turned and every day we see new companies who are stepping in to offer employees paid leave, with the frontrunners also offering parental leave support like our evidence-based manager and new parent coaching and training. 

The full picture for organizations with leave policies, however, is not transparent. Most companies decline to publicly report internal policies, including the length, pay and eligibility requirements of their individual leave policies, making it difficult for those seeking out employers who understand the importance of this timeframe to do anything else but ask what leave policies are in interviews or rely on Glassdoor ratings. These factors contribute to an even murkier understanding of how American workers can navigate leave policies to support their families, and more generally, lead to inequity.

How did FMLA pass in the first place?

You should hear the stories we have about the hard work and determination needed to pass the FMLA Serious, next level dedication. It took nearly 9 years of legislative wrangling, a robust public opinion campaign, and unexpected partnerships to pass FMLA into law in the early 1990s. 

In her work, Dr. Kirsten Swinth, of Fordham University’s Department of History, confirms what we know: successful passage of FMLA also meant significant compromises. Lawmakers intentionally left paid leave out when drafting the FMLA, recognizing the economic and political costs of funding. In addition, by pursuing family leave rather than maternity leave, they appealed to a wider swath of the U.S. population. But the concessions they made on who counted as a covered employee and on the amount of leave — not to mention that it was unpaid – left much to be desired in supporting working families. In spite of its limitations, FMLA’s passage was a hard won critical milestone and provides valuable lessons for the ongoing effort to make paid leave available to all.

What does this mean for the future of national paid leave in the U.S.?

Today’s paid leave advocates (of which we are but one) can look to FMLA’s passage as a foundation for their work. Dr. Swinth attests that by building on three decades of existing momentum, forging a wide-ranging coalition, and carefully framing the issue for bipartisan appeal, paid leave in the U.S. is attainable. We would add that it is inevitable.

Lawmakers in both parties have proposed bills, as recently as this week, that build upon FMLA and offer paid leave through various funding sources. In addition, the Paid Leave For All and the Paid Leave for the U.S. (PL+US) coalition building campaigns have made historic strides. Though PL+US was sunsetted last year when paid leave was not passed with the Build Back Better Act, their efforts were monumental and drew on a strategy focused on corporate engagement, advocacy, storytelling, policy, and organizational culture – a plan that reflects Dr. Swinth’s view of the winning formula for FMLA.

The current bills’ variations on eligibility requirements and program financing – in addition to today’s Congressional makeup – mean the debate will continue until we reach the tipping point of passing national paid family leave, which advocates (like us!) believe is closer than ever.

How can employers be a part of the solution?

In addition to offering paid leave policy (reach out if you’d like help creating a policy that meets your company’s unique needs), it’s up to employers to cultivate a culture of supporting families throughout their career life cycle. At the Center for Parental Leave Leadership, we know that when companies provide employer support during life’s most meaningful milestones, such as the addition of a new child, it not only creates a culture where workers thrive – it is the indispensable foundation for harnessing the inherent personal growth of parenthood, which transforms workplace cultures and improves business outcomes.

At CPLL we help companies help parents and parents help themselves. Our suite of proven solutions is designed to elevate companies as employers of choice while helping employees love their work. Whether it is through our RETAIN Parental Leave Coaching, employer and manager aligned education, strategic consulting, Parental Leave Transition Assessment (PLTA), our Workplace Perinatal Mental Health Screening, or other customized data collection tools, CPLL’s mission brings us all closer to a work life reframe that supports today’s working families. 

Learn more about how CPLL’s solutions can set your company apart, and schedule a free call to get started!

Special thanks to Dr. Kirsten Swinth for her research and thought leadership contributions to this article. Dr. Swinth is the author of Feminism’s Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family (Harvard, 2018).

Join Us!

Small steps WORKING PARENTS can take to improve leave in our country:

Small steps EMPLOYERS can take to improve their employee’s leave experience

Further Reading

Key Facts: The Family and Medical Leave Act, National Partnership for Women & Families

The State of Paid Family and Medical Leave in the U.S. in 2023, Center for American Progress

Comparative Chart of Paid Family and Medical Leave Laws in the United States, A Better Balance

Redefining Possibility: The Fight for Quality Paid Family and Medical Leave for Everyone, PL+US

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