When I gave birth to my daughter, I returned home with a squirmy little bundle and immediately felt overwhelmed. Though I was exhausted from changing diapers and waking for feedings, I was thankful that my job was secure.
In our struggle to balance our family lives and our work lives, one law has made a giant difference for me and 35 million other American workers — the Family Medical Leave Act.
This week, the FMLA celebrates its 20th year in existence. It’s been a godsend for those of us who want time to bond with our newborn, care for an aging parent or deal with a health emergency without the fear of losing our jobs.
But two decades after President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA into law, advocates say they still have unfinished business.
“It was meant to be a first step toward a family-friendly American workplace. But it is 20 years and we haven’t gotten to the second step,” says Judith Lichtman, senior advisor to the National Partnership for Women & Families and an original advocate for passage of FMLA.
In many ways, the FMLA has been even more helpful to working families than expected. The law initially was conceived to allow working mothers like me to take time off for childbirth and post-maternity.
But over 20 years, it has been used 100 million times by all types of workers — about 40 percent of them men.
The FMLA has provided time off for women who needed medical care during difficult pregnancies, fathers who took time to care for children fighting cancer, adult sons and daughters caring for frail parents and workers taking time to recover from their own serious illnesses.
The federal law says we can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if we work at a company with more than 50 employees, with a caveat that we must be employed there for a year. The big benefit is that our jobs are protected during that leave.
During the recession, the job security and the continuation of health insurance that FMLA guarantees proved particularly important.
Debbie Winkles, senior VP/director of human resources at Great Florida Bank in Miami Lakes, used FMLA three years ago when she needed to care for her husband who was battling cancer. Today, Winkles has male and female bank employees who are using FMLA to care for their newborns or to cope with illness.
Her company has created an easy spreadsheet system to track its employees’ FMLA leave. “With today’s health issues, so many people diagnosed with cancer are having chemotherapy, and employees need medical leave for themselves or a family member.”
In Wisconsin, Jill Delie is using FMLA to manage a chronic disease by taking a few days off each month for doctors appointments. In Maine, Vivian Mikhail used FMLA to care for her daughter, Nadia, when the little girl was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition that left her completely deaf.
Just this week, a longtime friend of mine told me how fortunate she feels to be able to take FMLA to spend time with her mother who has incurable lung cancer. “I don’t want to lose my job, but I can’t imagine not being there for her when she needs me,” my friend sighed.
Yet for all the benefit, FMLA doesn’t guarantee wages while workers are on leave, a component advocates had planned as a second step. According to a Department of Labor study, 78 percent of workers who needed FMLA leave did not use it because they could not afford to take unpaid leave. Proposed federal legislation would expand eligibility and introduce a paid family-leave insurance program. Funded through a small payroll tax, the program would provide two-thirds of an employee’s wages for up to 12 weeks of leave.