In the current political and legislative environment, amidst relentless attacks on people's civil and human rights, reasons to celebrate can seem few and far between. But as we approach Saturday’s 24th anniversary of the day the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) took effect – a day tens of millions of working people gained a right that has improved the health and well-being of their families and the country – I’m reminded that the pace of progress varies over time and, even on days when the odds seem stacked against us, people can and will keep moving the country forward.
The FMLA's implementation was the culminating victory of a nine-year fight that included two presidential vetoes and numerous setbacks that tested the mettle of working people, advocates and lawmakers. At the time, the law was a giant step toward realizing a vision of greater gender equality and more family friendly workplaces. Women, men and people throughout the country have since used the FMLA more than 200 million times to care for new children and loved ones with serious health conditions or to address their own serious health conditions, forever changing the culture of our workplaces and people’s expectations about their right to take unpaid time away from their jobs to address serious family and medical needs.
It is shameful and unbelievable that we are still fighting for national paid family and medical leave today, but the ground has undeniably shifted toward progress. Thanks to the dedicated and diverse national coalition the National Partnership convenes, people across the country who have worked tirelessly to win or advance state and local laws, and partnerships among policymakers and private sector leaders, there is now heightened public awareness about the need for paid leave, increased recognition of the costs of doing nothing, and examples of paid leave laws at the state level that are working well. Progress has accelerated in the past few years, and even in the past few months.
That's right. Reasons to be hopeful about the future of paid leave in this country are all around us. This year alone, lawmakers in 31 states considered paid family and medical leave bills. And in July, Washington state passed an unprecedented paid family and medical leave program that sets a new standard among states by providing a substantial amount of leave, ensuring lower-wage workers receive a greater portion of their wages when they're on leave, and including almost all workers and many types of families. California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington state and the District of Columbia now have, or will soon have, paid family and medical leave programs – and four of those programs were enacted in the last four years.
At the national level, there is historic consensus that Congress needs to advance paid leave. Eight in 10 voters say it is important for Congress and the president to consider a paid family and medical leave law. More than 340 organizations from more than 40 states sent a letter to Congress in June urging members to support a strong, inclusive and responsible paid family and medical leave plan. And a bipartisan group of scholars recently came together around core paid leave principles, calling it a policy that’s “time has come” and pledging to explore a more comprehensive plan over the next year.
Leading businesses and the private sector are taking action too, both by expanding or enacting paid leave policies of their own and supporting public policies. Just this week, Adobe became the latest company to endorse the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act – a federal proposal to create a national paid family and medical leave fund similar to those in place in states and other countries – joining other larger companies, such as Levi Strauss, Spotify, EILEEN FISHER, Patagonia, Care.com and Uncommon Goods. Seventy percent of small business owners say they support the FAMILY Act’s model, and more than 200 business school professors have called on Congress to pass it.
This momentum and sustained energy is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and it confirms that national paid leave is still on the horizon. But recent attention and developments have also opened the door for deception and sabotage that could result in even well-meaning lawmakers supporting half measures that would actually do more harm than good. The Trump administration's sham of a paid leave proposal, for example, would exclude the vast majority of people who need family and medical leave in this country, and it would decimate other essential programs. And the Strong Families Act, which was reintroduced in the House this week, would simply create tax credits for employers that provide paid leave, an approach that progressives and conservatives agree is unlikely to expand paid leave access to working people who don’t currently have it.
False promises like these are why policy details matter so much right now, and why working people, advocates, business leaders and lawmakers must be careful and vigilant about what real paid leave looks like. To truly fulfill the vision of the FMLA and meet the needs of working people, families and communities, we need a tested policy that “checks all the boxes,” like the FAMILY Act. People across the country should continue to tell lawmakers that they won’t settle for anything less. Together, we can – and will – continue to build on our progress and keep moving the country forward.