The Legacy of the Family and Medical Leave Act
February 5, 2018
It’s hard to imagine that 25 years ago, pregnancy was a cause for termination. Back then, pregnancy discrimination was a legal workplace norm in which pregnant women were regularly fired from jobs, demoted, and denied interviews or access to health benefits. Moreover, women of color−who traditionally are more likely to hold caretaking responsibilities for young children, spouses and aging parents−faced greater barriers to sustaining employment.
The passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), enacted on February 5, 1993, granted employees legal protections to “balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families.” The law permits 12 weeks of unpaid leave allowing parents to care for and bond with new babies or adopted children; and 26 weeks of intermittent leave to care for sick relatives. Over the years, the law has been expanded to provide protections for military service members, private contractors, and airline flight personnel. Today the law has been used more than 200 million times, including twice by former First Lady Michelle Obama, who was the primary breadwinner in her family at the time. Unfortunately, FMLA does not provide paid benefits and is available to fewer than 60 percent of workers because many can’t afford to take it. Only a handful of states have passed their own laws that would provide paid leave to employees for reasons beyond maternity leave such as: paternity, bereavement, or paid sick leave for men, women and domestic violence victims.
Our faith bestows great value to the institution of family. One example is the highly regarded historical woman who was a devoted wife, mother and business woman, seamlessly managing work-life balance, much to the chagrin of the modern woman. Today, technological advancements have revolutionized the way we connect at home and in the workplace. Employees can connect to email, video conferencing, cell phones, and text messaging, permitting round the clock productivity and virtually eliminating the need for physical presence in the workplace. Yet, the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not provide paid leave benefits.
Employers’ efforts to place profits over people diminish the common good and devalue the important roles of women and men within our families, the economy, and the workplace. Today more and more dads are requesting parental leave, same-sex couples are welcoming children, adult children are caring for aging parents, the loss of a loved one devastates an entire family, and domestic violence victims deserve time to recover and heal. Thus it is time for Congress to pass an updated law that requires employers to develop personnel policies that reflect 21st century norms without shortchanging employees.
25 years ago, I was a carefree, high school senior—determined to make my mark in Washington. Today, I am a social justice advocate and also the mother of a three-year-old son, a partner, and primary breadwinner. I am grateful for the opportunity to work at NETWORK Lobby, a social justice organization I that provides a paid maternity leave policy and truly supports families. It is my sincere hope that 25 years from now, my son will reap the benefits of our collective efforts to create a new world where employers in the United States prioritize family-friendly workplace benefits and policies.