by Lee Saunders and Laura Reyes | February 05, 2013
Twenty years ago today, Pres. Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law. AFSCME is proud of our union’s leadership in the fight to pass this historic legislation, which provided job protection for workers and guaranteed unpaid leave for 12 weeks during which workers could care for a new baby, a seriously ill child, parent or spouse, or recover from illness. Our members rallied and lobbied Congress to pass FMLA, we testified before congressional committees, and we worked with President Clinton to garner the votes needed to enact a law that has now benefited more than 100 million working families.
Before the passage of FMLA, far too many employees across America had to make the intolerable choice between keeping their jobs and livelihood and taking the time to deal with a family crisis. FMLA extended a much-needed helping hand to families in their time of need. Former AFSCME Pres. Gerald W. McEntee, who chaired the AFL-CIO’s Work and Family Committee at the time of the bill’s passage, had been a leading voice in the fight. Just as our union fought for the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s, we fought hard for the passage of FMLA because of our firm conviction that pro-family health care policies strengthen our economy and are in everyone’s best interest.
Our work did not end with the passage of FMLA. Five years ago, we fought to expand the bill to include military families. As a result of those efforts, members of our armed forces and their families are able to take up to 26 weeks of job-protected leave to help care for service members injured in combat. In addition, military family members are now able to use the traditional 12 week FMLA allotment to help them deal with the deployment of a close relative. Just as importantly, AFSCME fought the efforts of the George W. Bush Labor Department to make the use of FMLA benefits more difficult for families, by proposing complex regulations concerning reporting, certification and medical requirements. We are proud of our work to keep those anti-worker regulations from seeing the light of day.
Even today, far too many families must choose between paying their bills and caring for family members. Too many families are not covered. FMLA protections only cover those who work in firms with 50 or more employees, have been employed at the company for a year and have put in at least 1,250 hours annually on the job. As a result of these limitations, only one in five of all new mothers are able to utilize the law’s benefits. Lesbian and gay partners and spouses are not covered. More than three-quarters of the eligible workers who need leave are unable to use it because they cannot afford to go without their wages.
Now, 20 years after the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the time has come for Congress to expand the law to cover more families and provide paid leave for workers. California and New Jersey have passed paid family leave programs with very positive results. Our nation’s economy, our productivity and our competitiveness benefit when workers are able to meet their demands at home and on the job.
The Family and Medical Leave Act was a major milestone, but more needs to be done to help families dealing with medical emergencies and family needs. Paid leave is essential. Depriving workers of their income during times of crisis in family life is something no hard-working American should experience. No American should have to choose between the job they need and the family they love.