Today marks the 25th Anniversary of the signing of the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by former President Bill Clinton on February 5, 1993. FMLA established, for the first time in the US, a federal law that guaranteed many employees up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave each year with no threat of job loss. At the time, FMLA was a significant step forward in spite of the fact that it only covered 3 out of 5 US workers since 40% of US workers did not meet the criteria.
But today, as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) turns 25, we must recognize that our country is still in need of a long-overdue reckoning about equality, respect for women, and the sanctity of the family. If we truly are a country that supports family values as well as the ability to live and work with dignity, we need policies that value caring for our most vulnerable citizens: our newborns, our elderly, and those struggling with serious illness. And that very specifically includes paid leave.
Passing paid family and medical leave likely means exploding stereotypes and the “same old arguments” about jobs, family and care that have held back progress on this issue for many years. It means not caving in to the tired cliché that “it will destroy our nation’s ability to compete.” Given we are the only developed country in the world that does not offer paid parental leave, that’s a hard argument to make. It means recognizing that our businesses and economy are stronger when people can provide for themselves and their families during times of acute need. It means protecting the health and economic well-being of working people, families and communities, which will ultimately lead to a stronger economy and nation. Statewide family and medical leave policies in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have been petri-dishes for a national policy and research tells us that these policies have been anything but a jobs-killer.
The FAMILY Act – a national paid leave plan – would create a sustainable, affordable, inclusive national paid family and medical leave program that would provide security when people need time to care for a new child, a severely ill or injured loved one, or their own serious health issue.
Women, who not only have children but also do the lion’s-share of caregiving in the US, will clearly benefit from such a proposal becoming law. We assert that we want a society which promotes gender equality, yet year after year we fail to make this most basic commitment to show our honest support for a law that would provide the foundation for that equity. But a paid family leave law would go beyond support for working women.
For the last eight years, our Center (the Boston College Center for Work & Family) has done extensive research into the work-family challenges that face today’s “New Dads.” What’s clear from our work is that most fathers today want to be present and involved from the first days of their children’s lives. In our 2014 study on paternity leave that included 30 corporations and more than 1,000 working fathers, a number of interesting findings surfaced. For instance, virtually every study participant (99%) felt that paid paternity leave should be offered to new fathers. But most (86%), also stated that they could only take leave if they were paid at least 70% of their salary and 45% indicated they would require full salary in order to take leave.
This last point clearly demonstrates that having paid leave is an economic necessity. Taking unpaid leave is extremely challenging for most working Americans - dads or moms, especially those on the lower end of the income scale. A job guarantee is fine, but living on no income while caring for newborns and other loved ones in a time of critical need is simply not economically feasible.
So at 25, it’s finally time to wake up. Most of us will experience the joys (and challenges) of parenthood in our lives. And unfortunately, all of us will experience a serious illness or crisis in our own lives, or in those of our family members. To quote one of my Boston College colleagues, what we need now aren’t family-friendly policies, they are reality-friendly policies. They are national policies that accept the realities of life and support the dignity and needs of all of our citizens.
Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and a Research Professor in the Carroll School of Management
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