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Twenty-Five Years After the Passage of Family and Medical Leave Act, Better Policies Are on the Horizon

America’s evolving family policies are having real impacts on people’s lives.

Woman embracing child in doctor's office.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Jupiterimages/Thinkstock.

Taking Leave is a Better Life Lab series marking the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

When I was expecting my first child in 1977, there was no federal law to protect workers who were pregnant. Just having a baby bump could be cause for firing. The following year, after a more than decade-long fight, activists won the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. That law says employers can’t refuse to hire you and can’t fire you for being pregnant—but it has no requirement that the company hold your job open while you’re out giving birth. Many new mothers still lost their jobs. Others, like me, went back to work too soon to prevent that or to keep a paycheck, at a cost to body and psyche.

Then in 1993—25 years ago—advocates passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, with bipartisan support. That law was a big step forward. It acknowledged that having a child or a dad with cancer shouldn’t cost you your job or your health insurance. It recognized that men also have new children and that even those who aren’t parents have parents or partners or their own health that from time to time needs care. The FMLA guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for care of a new baby, a seriously ill child, spouse or parent, or a personal illness. Since its passage, Americans have used that leave more than 200 million times.

The richest country in the world stands alongside only Papua New Guinea in having zero weeks of paid leave.

But two-fifths of the workforce isn’t covered by the FMLA, because they work for a company with fewer than 50 employees or don’t work enough hours on one job or haven’t been there a full year when the need arises. The law’s definition of family doesn’t resemble real families—the FMLA doesn’t kick in for unmarried partners or siblings or grandparents or other loved ones in our lives. And perhaps the biggest kicker? The leave you can take under the FMLA is unpaid. This means that millions who are eligible for it each year skip treatment or go back to work before they, or a loved one, are ready because they simply can’t afford not to.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the FMLA this week, there’s reason to be hopeful. Americans overwhelmingly agree that we shouldn’t be kept from caring for a new baby or punished for helping a parent get through chemo or recover from a stroke. And as stories about the desperation of those without access to paid leave rise to the surface, momentum around the structures it would take to change this is gaining traction.

Lauren Agoratus first needed family leave in 1992 when she gave birth to her daughter, Stephanie. Lauren had six weeks of disability leave and expected to go right back to work, but the baby was born with a serious kidney problem that required longer hospitalization and care. “You go to all the Lamaze classes and La Leche League, and no one ever says something could go wrong,” Lauren said.

She worried about keeping her job as a bilingual service rep, but she was fortunate to have a boss who let her take the time she needed. To pay the bills, Lauren used up every day of vacation and sick time she’d been accruing over the years. The doctor finally said Stephanie could be in an in-home child care setting with a minimum number of other kids, so Lauren could go back to work.

Still, Stephanie kept getting sick. The doctor decided she needed more time at home and away from day care to build up her immune system. So, in 1993, Lauren took leave again. By now, the Family and Medical Leave Act had passed and she didn’t have to worry about her job. But the time was unpaid.

“We cut back on everything,” Lauren said, “and we weren’t extravagant to begin with. We discontinued any subscriptions. We volunteered in the Share program to get a couple bags of groceries. At one point I sold my high school ring. For the first time, we got credit cards, alternating between two. We wound up with $20,000 in debt, which was a lot back then. I was afraid we’d lose our home.”

As she became an advocate for her child, Lauren met other families of children with special needs and became the New Jersey Coordinator of Family Voices. She also got involved in the fight for statewide paid family leave. “I knew what families go through,” she said. “The FMLA gives job security, but people, especially those with medical bills, need income coming in.”

Lauren worked with Time to Care NJ, a coalition made up of labor and business owners, health care professionals, and groups that focused on ending poverty and inequities, that advocates for kids and for seniors. In 2008 New Jersey became the second state to pass a family leave insurance program, following California, which pioneered a program six years earlier.

For Lauren, this policy would pay off more personally than she could have imagined. In 2011, Stephanie, then age 19, needed a kidney transplant. “At first I thought, ‘Here we go again,’” Lauren said. “But it was totally different this time. It was such a relief, knowing it wouldn’t be just drain, drain, drain. We didn’t have years of getting out of debt. I didn’t worry about our home.”

Thanks to paid leave, Stephanie’s mother and father were able to be with her as she celebrated her prom and graduation from the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and then on the weekly three-hour trips for follow-up appointments. The time also allowed them training in the care they would need to provide back at home, including giving vitals and handling a two-page list of medications. Stephanie is now attending Mercer County Community College with the help of a nurse.

For too many people in the U.S. today, no paid leave means putting off or never getting time like this when family needs it or suffering a financial crisis. A growing number of employers, most recently Lyft, Walmart, and Starbucks, have figured out that updating their paid family leave policies is the smart as well as the right thing to do. Corporate lobbyists point to these changes to argue that decisions about paid leave are best left to individual employers. But if we left social progress solely to corporations, we likely still would have child labor and no minimum wage. Notably, Lyft and Walmart’s new policies leave out many of their own workforce.

Each new state paid leave win has brought improvements to the model. Rhode Island added job protection for all leave-takers. New York expanded the number of weeks available for bonding with a new child or caring for an ill family member to 12 weeks. The District of Columbia is making leave affordable by raising the percentage of wages workers will receive while on leave and making it a progressive rate to better serve low-income workers. Washington state ensured their law is portable between jobs and covers every single worker, including those in the public sector. More wins are on the horizon.

This movement is paving the way for a federal law that will pick up where FMLA left off 25 years ago. “Everyone wants to be there for family,” Lauren Agoratus said. “Paid leave makes that possible.”