FMLA Turns 21 While Congress Goes Out On Vacation

Yesterday marked the 21st anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

It is also the first of five weeks Congress will spend on August recess. Certainly this doesn’t mean all of our elected officials are off lazing in the sunshine, but the Congressional August recess is, technically, the only paid leave policy in the United States that’s protected by the full weight of a legislative mandate.

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 requires Congress to end session no later than July 31, with special instructions for odd-numbered years—and according to a recent Washington Post piece—this policy is brilliant. To be fair, the time off is commonly used to meet with constituents and local elected leaders, but nothing in the law requires it. And, according to Senate Historian Don Ritchie, the August recess was intended to help Members who “were looking for regularity and wanted to be able to promise their families in January that they could have an August vacation.” So, for all intents and purposes, Congress passed a law giving themselves a predictable paid vacation schedule. 

Terry Hartig, an environmental scientist from Uppsala University in Sweden, says every American should be taking more vacation time. In a study published by the American Sociological Association, Hartig and a few of his colleagues found that “collective restoration”, or sending everyone on vacation at the same time, can lower the “psychological distress” of a workforce.

That’s nice.

But unfortunately, many Americans can’t afford to take an unpaid sick day, much less a paid vacation. That’s why the August anniversary of FMLA and the August Congressional recess make such an ironic pair of occasions.

One would think all that refreshing time away from Washington would help energize action around something as important and healthy as paid leave, but alas, FMLA hasn’t done much growing up these last 21 years.

Most employers still aren’t covered by FMLA. The law only applies to public agencies and private sector employers with 50 or more employees. Even when an employer is eligible, however, a worker may still find themselves without benefits. An employee may only become eligible for FMLA when they’ve worked for the same employer for at least one year, or have accrued 1,250 hours of service in a single year.

Of those Americans who are, in fact, eligible for the Family Medical Leave Act, nearly half of all workers say they simply can’t afford to take time off. Only 12 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave, and fewer than 40 percent have paid medical leave, putting families in jeopardy of losing their income altogether in the event of a medical emergency.

A 2012 study from the Department of Labor found that roughly 40 percent of the American workforce is not eligible for FMLA.

Just last week, Jeannine Sato, testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Family and Children about her own experience being denied paid leave. Sato expected to use FMLA to cover her maternity leave. “I drafted a multi-page document about how I was going to cover my job responsibilities during my 12 weeks of maternity leave,” Sato stated in her written testimony.

Instead she was, not only refused leave, but was also denied a flexible work environment after the birth. “So I had to return to work full-time after only six weeks of medical leave, after using all my vacation and sick time, or risk losing my job.” Sato wrote.

Mind you, all this handwringing is over a bill that ensures unpaid leave to take care of family or see to an illness. It was a breakthrough, blockbuster of a bill in 1993.

But that was 1993.

The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act, is the most comprehensive effort to take FMLA further, and it’s in the hands of Congress right now.

In a release on the 20th anniversary of FMLA, FAMILY Act co-author Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) cited America’s changing families as one of the key reasons to make paid leave a legislative priority.

“As workers with care responsibilities withdraw from the workforce, or limit their time at work, they bring home less income in the short run, are less likely to earn raises and promotions at the same pace as those without care responsibilities, have more restricted access to workplace retirement benefits, earn less in Social Security retirement benefits, and accumulate lower lifetime earnings,” Sen. Gillibrand said.

“All of these factors combined leave too many American middle-class families today struggling throughout their working lives without adequate savings for retirement, while those families trying to enter the middle class can barely survive day to day.”

I fully support Dr. Hartig’s findings on “collective restoration”, but maybe he’ll understand why Americans are falling behind. Our elected leaders haven’t fully addressed our collective negligence of paid family leave.

So I’m sorry, Sweden. The U.S. simply isn’t that evolved yet.

TAKE ACTION: Act now to support paid family leave.


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