February 5 marks the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). At the time, FMLA was a groundbreaking law -- a great first step toward ensuring that we can all succeed at being both breadwinners and caregivers. The law has been used more than 100 million times since 1993, helping workers keep their jobs while they care for a family health crisis or a new baby.
But FMLA still has a long way to go. Because FMLA leave is generally unpaid and has eligibility and use restrictions, millions who qualify for it can't afford to take it or pay a hefty price when they do, and millions who'd like to benefit from it are excluded.
Shelby Ramirez, a 9to5 activist in Denver, has experienced the positive side of being eligible for and able to use FMLA. She's also seen its challenges.
Shelby works full-time as a hotel security guard. She is the mother of two daughters and a grandmother of two. Like many people, Shelby also cares for an elderly parent.
"As a woman working a low wage job, it can be a struggle to make it paycheck to paycheck," Shelby said.
When her younger daughter needed surgery at the same time her parent needed immediate medical attention, Shelby was able to take time to care for them, thanks to FMLA. The challenge? The time was unpaid.
"Having to take time off unpaid was an enormous financial burden for me," said Shelby. "After not paying rent and utilities, it took me four months to only partly get caught up with bills."
FMLA was meant only as a first step in helping workers handle the dual responsibilities of work and family. Now, as we celebrate its 21st anniversary, it's time to take that next step. As Shelby said, "Although FMLA is great and I was able to keep my job, having paid family and medical leave is necessary now and for the future for our families."
President Obama, in his State of the Union address, agreed with Shelby, voicing support for new policies that allow workers to care for their families when needed without losing a job or a paycheck.
"It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode," stated the President.
Working women and families nationwide need access to paid family and medical leave insurance -- a reflection of the realities faced by today's workers, families and the economy. Paid leave would benefit all workers, but especially working women because women make up more than half of the workforce and represent 59 percent to 75 percent of family or informal caregivers.
The Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), introduced last year by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), will create an entirely self-funded insurance program that would support workers and businesses. Funding for the program would come from very small employee and employer contributions. Employees would receive a portion of their wages when they need to be at home to recuperate from their own serious illness; the serious illness of a child, parent, domestic partner or spouse; the birth or adoption of a child; the injury of a family member who is in the military; or needs arising from a service member's deployment.
The benefits of paid leave are vast, including lower unemployment rates and greater job security, financial independence, economic growth and savings to businesses by reducing worker replacement costs. Family and medical leave insurance has been passed in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, and is being considered by lawmakers in a number of other states. In California, where it has been in effect longest, between 89 and 99 percent of employers report that the program has had either a positive or no noticeable effect on turnover, productivity, profitability and morale.
The FAMILY Act will allow women and families to maintain basic spending at a time they need it the most -- contributing to stability of families, communities and a growing economy. It's a simple common sense solution that hardworking Americans want. And it's the perfect prescription that will keep working women and families, local businesses and the economy vital and healthy. That's why Shelby and 9to5 members across the country are speaking out, sharing their stories, and taking action to update FMLA by making the FAMILY Act law and by passing family and medical leave insurance in the states.