Happy 22nd Birthday, FMLA!

Before the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was adopted, working people often had to make gut-wrenching decisions during pivotal points in their lives. Many women without a union contract had zero job protection if they became pregnant. There was no recourse for someone if they had to take time off of work to help an ailing parent or child. Losing your job during one of these scenarios was simply par for the course. 

FMLA was a game changer – millions of families in America have been protected since its adoption in 1993. There is no question that FMLA deserves much celebration.

As it stands today, FMLA requires certain establishments with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year to eligible employees. This leave can be used to stay home with a newborn or newly adopted child or to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

However; save for a few changes, FMLA has gone largely untouched for decades. This historic legislation was adopted nationally the same year pilots aired for X-Files and Boy Meets World. Fast forward to 2015: Girl Meets World is now on the air but we're still waiting on necessary improvements to FMLA.

While the job protections afforded in FMLA are crucial for our society, unpaid leave is not a viable option for many working families who rely on their hard-earned pay every month to make ends meet. People are often left with no other option than to use a combination of vacation, sick, and/or personal time to survive while on leave, and that’s if they are lucky enough to have access to these benefits when they need to take FMLA. Furthermore, FMLA only applies to employees who have worked in one place for at least a year. In today’s job market where people often jump from job to job out of necessity, this is obviously problematic. All of this results in 88% of women in our country not getting paid for even a single hour (let alone days, weeks) after they give birth.

Rebecca Traister explained in her New Republic article, Why Women Can't Break Free from the Parent Trap (worth the read!):

For the majority of new parents, whose penniless postpartum months (or weeks, or days, or whatever they can afford to take without pay, which is often nothing) are simply the result of the way things are in a country that venerates motherhood but in practice accords it zero economic value, the situation is far more dire. It makes parenting a privileged pursuit, takes women out of the workforce, and ultimately affirms public and professional life as being built for men. Mercifully, the Obama administration is starting to come around to this reality. In January, the president announced that he would sign an executive order giving federal employees six weeks of paid family leave, and that he would pressure Congress to encourage better family and sick leave policies. The post that announced the shift was titled “Why We Think Paid Leave Is a Worker’s Right, Not a Privilege.”

The vast majority of the world has acknowledged the necessity of paid maternity leave: the U.S is one of only 4 countries that doesn't offer paid leave to new mothers. According to MomsRising, We join the ranks of Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho. It’s clearly time for our nation to move forward.

Working people in California recognized the limitations of FMLA more than a decade ago. After a campaign led by the California Labor Federation alongside community allies, groundbreaking legislation was adopted to create the Paid Family Leave (PFL) program for Californians. This program allows new mothers and fathers to stay home and bond with their children, or sons and daughters to take time off to care for their ailing parents without the fear of missing a mortgage payment or not being able to pay for their groceries. It’s not just common sense; it’s also good economic policy.

It’s time for our nation to fight for the same economic securities PFL provides Californians.  While we celebrate FMLA this year, we’re hoping to see a new and improved version in 2016 when she turns 23!

For more information on FMLA, PFL and similar programs, visit Labor Project for Working Families.