By Hilary O. Shelton and Debra L. Ness
In February, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which was the first bill President Clinton signed into law. President Obama hailed the law, as did current and former lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle. Indeed, it was a singular accomplishment for the nation - the first national law ever to help workers balance the dual demands of job and family.
That law is making a huge difference for the country. Most directly, the FMLA allows about 60 percent of workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted or foster child, to recover from serious illness, or to help a close family member facing a serious health problem. When workers take leave under the FMLA, their health insurance continues and a job is waiting for them when they return. In the 20 years since the FMLA became law, workers have used the law to take leave more than 100 million times.
The FMLA had indirect benefits, too, changing the culture by embedding in law that workers have family as well as job responsibilities. It helped create a climate in which work/family responsibilities became part of a national conversation. This has meant support for families from all communities, parents providing childcare as well as children providing eldercare. It’s made our workplaces more humane and family friendly.
In these times when there is so much rancor and so little consensus, it’s important to keep in mind that passage of the FMLA did not come quickly or easily. It was a nine-year battle to get both houses of Congress to pass it at a time when we had a president who would sign it into law. It took an extraordinary coalition that included women’s, civil rights, children’s, health, labor, aging and other groups. The National Partnership led that coalition and the NAACP contributed mightily to its success. We proved that progress is possible, even in contentious times.
But for all we accomplished, it’s important to remember that the FMLA was always intended to be the first step on the road to a family-friendly nation. And 20 years later, the country has not taken the next step. That’s a real disappointment and a painful one, because workers in our communities are being cheated out of the policies they urgently need.
The good news is that a broad coalition continues to work for family friendly policies, because we recognize that the FMLA’s unpaid leave is not sufficient to meet the needs of workers and families. According to the Department of Labor’s 2012 survey, most often workers who forgo leave do so because they can’t afford to take leave without pay.
The next step needs to be improving the law so it covers more workers who need to take leave for more reasons, and adopting a national paid leave insurance system that provides some wage replacement, so low-wage and part-time workers, too, can take family and medical leave when they need it most.
The country is ready. A bipartisan poll taken in November showed that, across all demographic lines, workers are struggling to balance their work and family responsibilities, and they want Congress and the president to consider new laws like paid family and medical leave insurance. African Americans, Latinos, women and young people - the very voters that decided the last election - felt strongest about the importance of congressional and presidential action: 77 percent of African Americans, 79 percent of Latinos, 69 percent of women and 68 percent of people under 30 considered it "very important."
They are right. It’s time to take the next step. 40 percent of the workforce still isn’t covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, and tens of millions of workers still can’t afford to take the unpaid leave the law provides. When babies are born, illness strikes, or relatives need care, they either show up at work or risk losing their jobs.
It’s time to rededicate ourselves to this issue, make some noise, and demand that lawmakers take the next step. Making the nation more family friendly is the unfinished business of our time.
Hilary O. Shelton is Washington bureau director and senior vice president of policy and advocacy for the NAACP; Debra L. Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families