FMLA at 30: Persisting Toward Paid Leave

It’s time we make comprehensive, paid family and medical leave a reality for every worker in America.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) speaks as Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), director of Paid Leave for All Dawn Huckelbridge and vice president for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women & Families Sharita Gruberg, listen during a news conference on the Family and Medical Leave Act on Feb. 1, 2023. Congressional Democrats discussed a legislative package to establish paid leave and expand and modernize the Family and Medical Leave Act, ahead of its 30th anniversary. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

This past weekend marked a milestone anniversary for a historic piece of legislation: the Family and Medical Leave Act, or the FMLA, as it’s widely known. This law—which was signed by President Bill Clinton on Feb. 5, 1993—allows millions of workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family or medical reasons during moments of great need with the peace of mind of knowing they won’t lose their jobs. As the FMLA turns 30, we should use this opportunity to celebrate its legacy—and reflect upon how much further our country still has to go when it comes to supporting workers in balancing their personal and professional lives.

The FMLA was a groundbreaking achievement. Since 1993, Americans have relied on the FMLA on nearly 463 million occasions to care for themselves or their loved ones. In 2022 alone, the FMLA supported nearly 15 million workers. These astounding numbers illustrate the enormous impact of the law—and the enormous gap it helped fill.

The FMLA is important for many reasons, but especially because it established an essential baseline standard to help workers meet their obligations at home and on the job without jeopardizing their financial security. 

Even more broadly, the FMLA fundamentally changed the conversation around caregiving and work—and how protections in support of caregiving are integral to what our workplaces should aspire to be.

The law makes clear that the lack of access to leave is not only an individual problem, but also a workplace problem, an equity problem, and a problem which affects our entire society.

In doing so, it addressed a significant barrier that prevented millions of people—women, in particular—from fully participating in our economy, often due to long-entrenched biases around perceived gender roles.

Take just one example. In 1993, an executive was quoted as saying: “If you’re an employer, you will look at a young woman and say, ‘Can we really entrust her to do crucial responsibilities that no one else can do because she’s going to take three months off [after giving birth]?’”

The National Partnership for Women & Families—the organization I have the privilege to now lead—understood back then that the outdated mindset voiced by this executive would keep shutting women out of important job opportunities. And fixing this problem was one of the key motivations behind the FMLA.

Lack of access to leave is not only an individual problem, but also a workplace problem, an equity problem, and a problem which affects our entire society.

Back in 1984, when we were known as the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, our staff spearheaded the early drafting of what would eventually become the FMLA. 

The law established a gender-neutral leave protection that was available to all eligible workers and, in doing so, it helped counter discrimination against workers based solely on their responsibilities as caregivers. 

Our work also involved helping to build a diverse coalition whose members were instrumental in rallying support for the FMLA’s passage. From organized labor to faith-based communities, to advocates for people with disabilities, seniors, women’s rights and private industry. This coalition secured bipartisan champions in Congress and mobilized broad public support.

But, even with all the FMLA’s supporters, it still took nine years to enact—surviving two vetoes by President George H.W. Bush before being signed by President Clinton. 

Thirty years later, we can draw upon the lessons from the fight to pass the FMLA to take the next step forward. 

Although the FMLA accomplished critical progress, there were gaps in the law that’ve made it too hard for some workers to use the law’s protections. Roughly 44 percent of workers are not covered by the FMLA.

Even for those who are covered, taking unpaid leave is often unfeasible. Last year, more than 7 million Americans needed to take time off work—but were unable to do so because they couldn’t afford any reduction in their paychecks. 

To make matters worse, workers of color are being left behind because they’re more likely than white workers to hold jobs that don’t offer any kind of leave. 

Access to comprehensive paid family and medical leave is essential for all workers—and it is the next step to build on the FMLA’s important legacy.

Roughly 44 percent of workers are not covered by the FMLA.

Today, a strong majority of Americans support comprehensive paid leave policies—just like they supported the FMLA back in 1993. Yet history teaches us that, even with such broad public consensus, enacting progressive policies often requires patience and persistence. 

Much like the FMLA, we now have a diverse coalition of allies—from Paid Leave for All to Care Can’t Wait—pushing for paid leave, and the National Partnership is proud to work alongside them.

And, just like the FMLA, we’ve had setbacks. They include the disappointment of not getting a paid leave plan enacted as part of President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal. 

But failure is not an option. 

We will continue to fight—undaunted and undeterred, no matter the obstacles we may confront. Because this fight is right. And it will help millions more people across our nation. I urge you to raise your voice and join the movement to make a comprehensive, paid family and medical leave a reality for every worker in America.

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Jocelyn Frye is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. Frye was formerly a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where she shaped policy development for CAP's Women’s Initiative.