The Family and Medical Leave Act: Then, Now and Next

First lady Michelle Obama waves as she walks in the Inaugural Parade with President Barack Obama, not pictured, after the cer
First lady Michelle Obama waves as she walks in the Inaugural Parade with President Barack Obama, not pictured, after the ceremonial swearing-in for the 57th Presidential Inauguration on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Twenty years ago, the critics of job-protected family and medical leave were loud... and wrong: "A disincentive to hire," quipped one 1992 editorial. "A sham" and "anti-family," opined others. One congressman called it "bad for business" and "a cynical election-year ploy." These are the same kinds of reflexive attacks on workplace regulation we often hear today. "It's job killing. It won't work. It's a giveaway to irresponsible workers."

"America's families have beaten the gridlock in Washington to pass Family and Medical Leave," said President Bill Clinton as he signed the historic Family and Medical Leave Act 20 years ago tomorrow. FMLA, now core to the culture of the American workplace and the American working family, provides job-protected leave for the birth, adoption or care of a child; to provide care for injured or ill relatives; or to attend to one's own medical needs.

In the summer of 1993, none other than the Children's Television Workshop joined with the U.S. Department of Labor to produce a series of public service announcements promoting the value of family and medical leave in the workplace. With familiar Big Bird in the background, the message stands the test of time.

Today, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of FMLA, the Department of Labor (which next month will celebrate its own 100th anniversary) is releasing the results of a survey on the act's use and impact. Plain and simple: FMLA is still good for workers and their families -- and yes, it's good for business.

The report tells us that, over the last 20 years, FMLA has had a positive effect on the lives of millions of American workers and their families, without imposing an undue burden on employers as detractors once warned. In truth, employers report little to no difficulty complying with FMLA and actually credit the law for reduced turnover and increased workplace morale.

As times have changed, FMLA has kept up. In 2010, recognizing the diverse faces of the modern family, the Labor Department issued guidance on the law including coverage of gay parents and relatives that act as parents. And last year, first lady Michelle Obama highlighted efforts to expand FMLA to meet the unique challenges confronting military families and those who care for our wounded warriors.

FMLA is based on the simple idea that workers should not have to choose between the jobs they need and the families they love. The Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division will continue to make sure that the law is enforced. And as a working father, married to a wonderful working mother, I'm grateful it is.

Seth D. Harris is the acting United States secretary of labor.