February 5, marked a historic and celebratory moment in our nation’s history.
Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton signed into law the very first bill of his administration, and its first word is “family.” Since then, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has enabled millions of mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, and sons and daughters to get and provide critical care without risking their jobs or health insurance protections. It has provided job-protected, unpaid leave for moms and dads to care for babies, adult children to care for ailing older parents, workers to recover from serious illness, and much more.
At the National Partnership — then the Women’s Legal Defense Fund — the signing of the FMLA was the culmination of years of leadership and hard work drafting, coalition building, advocating, communicating, occasionally compromising and, most importantly, never giving up on our vision for a more family-friendly America.
“Groundbreaking” is a word that’s thrown around a lot, but this victory truly was. The FMLA is the first national law ever to help Americans manage the dual demands of work and family. It was made possible by a broad coalition of 200 diverse groups and by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who knew it was time to start changing the culture in this country.
And we prevailed, for the good of the nation.
Today, 20 years later, the FMLA has been used more than 100 million times. Many Americans take for granted that working people have access to job-protected, unpaid leave when serious medical needs arise — a testament to the great success of the law. For an entire generation, taking leave under the FMLA has been a fundamental, unquestioned right.
The tremendous impact of the FMLA on people’s lives and the culture of the nation are real reasons for us all to celebrate. But this anniversary is also a stark reminder of how long it has been since lawmakers have come together to prioritize the needs of America’s working families. And data from the Department of Labor (DOL), released just yesterday, make painfully clear the urgency for further progress.
According to the DOL’s first survey of the FMLA in 13 years, 40 percent of the workforce is not covered by the FMLA’s protections. And the inability to afford to take unpaid leave is the most common reason workers who are covered by the law say they didn’t take leave when they needed it. (A more detailed analysis of the DOL’s findings can be found here.)
These gaps are the result of dramatic changes in our workforce in the past two decades, and the fact that the FMLA was meant to be just a first step on the road to a family-friendly America. Twenty years later, the country has yet to take the next step. And the bipartisanship and commitment to a better country for working people that made FMLA possible seems a distant and fading memory.
Fortunately, there is hope. More and more lawmakers and others recognize family-friendly policies as essential to families’ economic security, to the success of businesses, and to restoring the vitality of our nation’s economy.
The American public recognizes this as well. There are significant opportunities for progress on the horizon, and a growing body of research that shows that Americans, across demographic and party lines, want — and urgently need — Congress to move the country forward. In fact, according to recent polling, the overwhelming majority of Americans say they struggle to manage work and family obligations. Eighty-six percent say Congress should consider new laws that would help, like a paid family and medical leave insurance program.
Paid leave policies benefit working families, businesses and our national economy. They keep people working, level the playing field for businesses, reduce reliance on public assistance and much, much more. Paid leave policies are win-win-win, and it is time for members of Congress to make the introduction and passage of a national standard a top priority.
Twenty years ago, America became a more family friendly nation. We can — and must — do it again.
You can find out more about the FMLA, its history, and the need for next steps at www.NationalPartnership.org/FMLA.