Happy Birthday, FMLA!

FMLA-ClintonBY SABINE SCHOENBACH      It’s been 20 years since President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law. Two decades ago, the first and only national law written specifically to help workers meet the dual responsibilities of family and work passed with strong bi-partisan support and has been used over 100 million times by working men and women to take leave when welcoming a new child into the family, caring for a seriously ill family member, or recovering from an illness.

The FMLA ensures that those who are eligible, during pivotal moments in their lives, will know that their job will be waiting for them. A crucial piece of the legislation ensures that workers can’t be fired for taking leave

We can certainly celebrate how far we have come.  But this anniversary also reminds us of how far we have left to go. Only half of our country’s workforce is eligible under the FMLA.  It only applies to employers with 50 or more employees and only covers employees who have worked at their workplace for at least one year. And it doesn’t cover workers who need to take care of extended family members such as their grandchildren.

All of these restrictions translate into only about one in five new mothers being covered by the law. And people of color and young adults in their child-bearing years, many of whom are exactly the workers who most need job protected leave, are less likely to be covered.

And many workers simply can’t afford to use the FMLA. Many families in North Carolina are living paycheck to paycheck and don’t have the option of taking unpaid time off.  Research shows that almost 8 out of 10 workers who are eligible can’t afford to take unpaid leave.

The FMLA was always meant to be a first step, and fortunately states are stepping up to fill in the gaps. Here in North Carolina, the Caregiver Relief Act was reintroduced this past session. The Act would allow workers to take unpaid leave to care for their siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, stepparents, or parents-in law. North Carolina ranks 6th in the nation in the number of grandparents with responsibilities for grandchildren under the age of 18. It’s time that policy caught up with the realities of modern family structures.

Join NC Families Care, NC MomsRising, and the NC Justice Center and our partner organizations in celebrating the 20th anniversary of the FMLA and honoring our North Carolina champions of work-family policy who are working to fill the gaps.