Twenty years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act, making a landmark shift in the nation’s employment leave policy. Allowing for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave upon the birth/adoption of a child, tend to a personal illness, or care for a sick spouse, parent or child, the law is being hailed today as a net success — yet even the law’s biggest champions acknowledge that the law’s limits still hamstring both employers and employees two decades later.
In honor of Tuesday’s anniversary, the Department of Labor released a survey of more than 2,800 U.S. employers and workers about how FMLA has affected them. The survey reveals that 16% of employees took FMLA leave within the last year, 56% of those being women. Most FMLA leave-takers (57%) did so due to a personal illness, while 22% used FMLA upon the birth/adoption of a child, and 19% did so to care for an ill parent, spouse or child.
Further, 40% of workers took FMLA for 10 days or less, with 70% reporting back to work within 40 days.
“The Family and Medical Leave Act codified a simple and fundamental principle: Workers should not have to choose between the job they need and the family members they love and who need their care," Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris says. "The FMLA has helped millions upon millions of working families manage challenging personal circumstances at very little cost to their employers and with very little disruption in the workplace."
The “very little disruption” part is up for debate. Despite an overwhelming 91% of employers in the DOL survey noting that complying with FMLA has either no noticeable effect or a positive effect on business operations, the law has remained over the years a top-tier challenge for HR/benefits professionals in terms of administration, reporting and combating abuse — not to mention the difficulty of keeping up with scores of FMLA-related lawsuits.
Further, even amid employers’ problems complying with existing law, FMLA’s biggest cheerleaders say one of the law’s most gaping problems is that it isn’t broad enough.
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive Director of MomsRising notes that, “FMLA has made many lives better, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Only about half of workers are eligible for FMLA — and a significant number of people who are eligible to use FMLA aren’t able to afford to do so, because it’s unpaid leave. Americans agree, ensuring you can care for your loved ones and not have to give up a paycheck to do it should be a workplace standard.”
Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, the organization that penned FMLA, concurs. “We intended the FMLA to be the first step on the road to a family-friendly nation. The law has been a huge success, but it's time — past time — to take the next step. We are asking Congress to expand the law … and to adopt a national paid family and medical leave program.”
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