Family Matters

Happy 20th Birthday: Q&A with the Women Behind the Family and Medical Leave Act

It provides workers with more rights if they have to take time off for a family or health emergency. But its creators say the act could do more.

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On Monday night, Debra Ness and Judith Lichtman attended a birthday party. Ness is the president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, and Lichtman successfully lobbied for the group’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which turned 20 this week.

There was a yellow cake with white icing that was inscribed, Happy birthday, FMLA. It had two candles — a 2 and a 0. But it just as easily could have had 100 million, which is the number of times the Act has been used since its inception.

The FMLA is perhaps best known for guaranteeing pregnant women their jobs back after up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. But it can also be used by employees who need time off to care for sick relatives. It’s particularly useful for employees who are granted no paid sick days.

Yet it’s far from a perfect piece of legislation. It only covers employers with 50 or more employees, and those employees must have worked more than 1,250 hours a year in order to qualify for the provisions. And, perhaps most significantly, it’s unpaid. So while 60% of U.S. employees are eligible, many may not be able to afford to temporarily forgo their salary.

The Act was the first piece of legislation signed by President Clinton, after being vetoed — twice — by President George H.W. Bush. Ness and Lichtman talked to TIME about the impact of the law that protects workers’ jobs while they stay home to take care of new babies, sick family members — or themselves.

What do you remember from 20 years ago when the bill was signed?
Lichtman: The first draft came from us on one of those old Selectric typewriters. We used White-out. It took about nine years to pass. In the middle of those years, it wasn’t so clear we’d be able to successfully pass a piece of legislation that was as broad as it is in the number of people it protects. We were offered the possibility of passing legislation just for pregnant women. We refused. It would have been a quicker fix, but it would not have provided the kind of broad coverage that makes a huge difference in workers’ lives.

When Clinton signed that law, he leaned back and handed me the pen. We have it in a wonderful frame up here in our office. It’s pretty noteworthy that the first word of the first bill he signed was “family.”

How did the legislation come about?
Lichtman: We actually wrote it in 1984 when we were known as the Women’s Legal Defense Fund. The driving force behind it was our understanding that there wasn’t existing policy that protected the jobs of women and men if they had family health emergencies. That was the inspiration to come up with a new and innovative public policy that is now really recognized as a revolutionary change.

Ness: Part of what this law did by virtue of being gender-neutral and available for both men and women and not just for taking care of kids but for the illness of parents, was counter some of the discrimination that women faced because of stereotypes of women as caregivers. This law was a way to move us beyond the stereotype of women as caregivers and men as breadwinners. So when we talk about what this law has accomplished, it has caused extraordinary cultural change in our society and in our expectations around care giving and gender roles.

But this was always just a first step. For sure, we are not in sync with the reality of today’s 21st century workplace. Today we live in a world where 50% of the workforce is female, women are primary breadwinners in 40% of households, and in 50% they are significant contributors. So we live in a world where nearly all adults are in the workforce for the most part and our family care giving needs are huge as a result of the aging of the population. There needs to be more progress made.

What sort of progress?
Ness: The FMLA only covers 60% of the workforce. And we need to institute a national paid leave insurance program. We are so behind other countries. There are so many benefits, not only to families’ economic security but to employers and society. When people are paid for leave, data shows pregnant women work longer into their pregnancies, come back sooner and are earning more a year later. They are also more likely to return to their employers. When people have paid leave, they are much less likely to need to go on public assistance. It’s a good win-win-win all around.

(MOREShould Pregnant Women Be Accommodated in the Workplace?)

Has the law been amended at all?
Ness: In 2008 and 2009 the law was expanded to cover military families for the care of wounded service members and veterans, and they fixed a problem with airline employees. That’s it.

Is that not enough?
Lichtman: We did research which showed 74% of voters said they, their friends or neighbors face real hardships in managing work and family responsibility and serious health conditions. And 72% say they or their families would face real financial hardships if a major health need arose. Eighty-six percent said they favor new laws to help working families be economically secure and are supportive of family and medical leave insurance programs.

Ness: Those numbers are pretty stunning. They cut across demographic lines, Republicans as well as Democrats. The strongest support came from younger folk, people of color and young women.

So what else needs to change?
Lichtman: The law needs to be expanded. It protects your job but it doesn’t protect your income. We need to expand existing family and medical leave to more employees. It should also include incidents of domestic violence. Pending proposals include being able to take time off to attend school meetings.

Ness: It would also help to expand the definition of family. Right now it includes your own children up to age 18. It should expand to adult children. It also doesn’t include siblings or grandparents or grandchildren. It doesn’t include domestic partners or same-sex spouses. I would like to see the definition of family expanded to match the reality of our lives.

What specific changes do you plan to bring up this year?
Ness: The Healthy Families Act about paid sick days will be introduced. It enables workers to earn seven paid sick days a year at employers with at least 15 employees. We are also planning to introduce the Family Act, which is a national paid leave insurance program.

How would that work?
Ness: It’s a payroll deduction program administered through the Social Security Administration. An employer would also make a small contribution. It would go into a fund and when you need to take FMLA, you would get some sort of pay based on your amount of earnings, 66% of your salary up to a cap paid out of this insurance fund. It would amount to two-tenths of 1% of your paycheck — $1.50 per paycheck for the average worker. There are two states that have this: California and New Jersey. In both states it’s working quite well.

If you could look 20 years down the road, what would the FMLA look like?
Ness: I’m hopeful we’re no longer even having discussions about these kinds of proposals, that we have integrated them into our workplace and social culture so it’s just the way you do business in the 21st century. These are not just nice benefits. These are central economic necessities at a time when nearly all men and women are working. When you have to put your job on the line and your family’s economic security at risk in order to take care of basic family or basic health needs, that is a travesty. It’s harmful to our nation’s overall economic vitality. My vision is that we will have recognized that and gotten to a place where these policies are standard.

(MORE: Can Caring for Your Aging Parents Hurt Your Career — or Your Paycheck?)