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Twenty years ago this week, President Bill Clinton made the Family and Medical Leave Act the first bill he signed into law. It was a huge and meaningful victory — a step forward for a country undergoing massive demographic and workforce changes, made infinitely more challenging because our public policies lagged far behind.
It’s not often that a law has both an immediate and lasting effect. But this one did. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows many employees who have been working for at least a year for an employer with 50 or more workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new baby or for a child, parent or spouse who has a serious health condition. It also allows unpaid, job-protected leave for workers who need to address their own serious health problems.
In these 20 years, working men and women have used it to take leave 100 million times. Those leave-takers are fathers and mothers who have cared for new babies. They are women who needed medical help during complicated pregnancies. They are parents of sick children who were at hospital bedsides to help their little ones recover. They are adults who took time off to care for sick or dying parents or spouses.
They are people in Connecticut, Maryland and every state in this country who are much better off because when they took leave under the FMLA, their health insurance continued and their job was there when they were ready to return.
The fight to pass the FMLA was long and hard. Organized business interests vehemently opposed the legislation and blocked it for many years. We prevailed because we knew it was right for the country and we would not give up — and we prevailed because of the steady and skilled leadership of the National Partnership for Women and Families, which drafted the legislation and built a broad, durable, dedicated coalition that saw it through.
In the years after the FMLA became law, none of our opponents’ sky-is-falling predictions ever came true. In the years after Clinton signed it, businesses did well, and our economy thrived.
Something else happened, too. The country’s culture changed. The prospect of family-friendly workplaces came into focus. It was no longer an unimaginable dream but rather something to look forward to. It was not yet here, for sure, but it finally seemed within reach.
A few years ago, we cheered when the FMLA was expanded to provide additional support to military families. But that isn’t the only expansion we need.
The FMLA covers only about half of this nation’s workers. It doesn’t cover those who work part time, people at small firms or those who have been at their current jobs for less than a year. It doesn’t allow for leave to care for an adult child, a domestic partner, a grandparent or sibling. It doesn’t allow leave to address domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. And it does not provide the financial security that many workers need to be able to take leave.