Twenty years ago on Tuesday, former President Bill Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires companies to grant their employees at least 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year to recover from a serious illness, bond with a new baby or care for their ailing family members. Clinton, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) marked the occasion by pushing for an expanded version of the bill that would ensure paid family and medical leave for workers who could not afford to take 12 unpaid weeks off.
"People desperately want to have successful families, to be good parents, to have a job and succeed at it," Clinton said Tuesday in a speech at the Department of Labor. "If you take one away to get the other, the country pays a grievous price and every life is diminished. I've had more people mention the family leave law to me, both while I was in the White House and in the 12 years since I've been gone, than any other single piece of legislation I signed."
Since its implementation in 1993, the FMLA has been used over 100 million times by roughly 35 million Americans, and polls show that the law is widely popular among workers as well as the businesses that employ them. But the FMLA covers less than three-fifths of U.S. workers, because in order to qualify for the 12 weeks of leave, a person has to have worked for a company with 50 or more employees for at least a year. Part-time workers and employees at smaller businesses are left out.
Further, millions of people who need the full amount of unpaid leave do not take it because they cannot afford to do so, according to a new Department of Labor survey. Women make up a disproportionate 64 percent of workers in that category.
"Not all employees are covered by the law, and oftentimes workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave," President Barack Obama said in a statement on Tuesday. "So as we mark this anniversary, let us also recommit ourselves to the values that inspired the law and redouble our efforts on behalf of fairer workplaces and healthier, more secure families."
During his speech, Clinton pointed to the success of the California Paid Family Leave program and the paid sick days law in Connecticut as models for what could be done on a national level.
The White House and Congress are taking steps to expand the FMLA's reach and fill in the holes. The Department of Labor announced a new regulation on Tuesday that extends the law's protections to military families and airline flight crews, while DeLauro and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) will soon reintroduce The Healthy Families Act, which would set a national standard for paid sick leave.
The bill would require companies with 15 or more employees to allow their workers to earn up to an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, adding up to 7 days of paid sick leave per year. It would also allow victims of domestic violence or sexual assault to use their sick leave to recover from a violent incident.
Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) introduced another piece of legislation on Tuesday, the “Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act," which would provide all federal employees four weeks of paid parental leave upon the birth or adoption of a child.
"We want to make the FMLA more accessible, more affordable, and we'd like to see it include paid sick days that cover routine illnesses like the flu," said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, which advocates for family-friendly workplace policies. "Ideally you want that policy to cover everyone, even people who are working for an individual. We all have a stake as a society in helping families and ourselves stay healthy."
Legislative efforts to expand the FMLA have been blocked for the past several years by conservative members of Congress and opposed by corporate lobbyists. But Clinton pointed out on Tuesday that when he signed the bill into law, it had bipartisan support. "I think it's important as we move ahead not to forget about this," he said. "This used to have a fair amount of Republican as well as Democratic support."