If you’ve been able to take time off work to care for a child or parent without worrying about losing your job in the past two decades, you can thank the Family Medical Leave Act. Since its adoption, the act has changed millions of lives for the better, though many say it doesn’t go far enough.
As his very first act in office, President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA into law in 1993. Designed to allow workers penalty-free leave, the law gives 12 weeks off for anyone caring for a new child, a sick family member, or recovering from a serious illness or injury. Since its implementation, more than 100 million workers have used this benefit, including millions of North Carolina women.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, who helped draft the FMLA, each year in North Carolina more than 100,000 working women have a baby. Although anyone working in an organization with more than 50 employees is guaranteed to keep her job after taking this time off, according the NC Justice Center, less than 20% take full advantage of this benefit.
The fact that relatively few people use the right, illustrates a major problem with the bill: While it maintains the workers’ job, it doesn’t guarantee pay during the time off. Most employees cannot afford to forego three months’ pay, even if it means they lose out on bonding with a new child or caring for an elderly parent. Currently only two states—California and New Jersey—give employees access to pay during FMLA. North Carolina lawmakers have tried to pass a similar law several times, but have not been successful.
Other problems with the FMLA include the large number of employees—nearly 40%– who are ineligible because the companies they work for are too small. The Partnership for Women has proposed changing the threshold from 50 to 25 employees to require a company to offer family leave.
In addition to the federally mandated time off for families, North Carolina residents have access to several other provisions to allow them to take care of themselves and their families. Small Necessities leave allows caregivers to take off 4 unpaid hours each year to attend school events or volunteer. Domestic Violence Leave gives victims of abuse “reasonable time off” to recover from the physical, emotional, or practical fallout from domestic violence.
Although the FMLA is not perfect, it is an amazing tool that serves mothers, fathers, and anyone who needs to provide care for themselves or someone they love. The bill, which was groundbreaking 20 years ago, should be updated to ensure it continues to serve those who need it most.