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FMLA at 25: Time to Get Paid?

Rewind to 1993. Ah. The year of denim, “The X-files,” and when buying a movie ticket cost you a solid $4.14. But it’s also the year when something very important happened for families. Any guesses?

Alright, fine, the answer’s in the headline. Yes, on August 5, 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) went into effect. The FMLA granted American workers, regardless of gender, up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected family leave for those working at companies that employ 50+ people. This piece of legislation began to recognize the delicate juggling act that happens between work-life and family-life.  

Unfortunately, though, about 43 percent of people can’t afford to take advantage of the FMLA, because the leave is unpaid. But, at the very least, the FMLA was a nudge in the right direction.

Well, a lot has changed in 25 years. Mulder and Scully made a movie and tickets to that movie cost $15. But some things haven’t: FMLA is still the only federal policy providing leave for new parents and other caregivers.

That’s right – the United States doesn’t have a federal paid leave policy. We are the only industrialized nation without a nationally mandated policy providing paid leave to new moms after child birth. Here’s how we stack up against 20 countries around the world.


In the absence of a federal policy, there is a patchwork of municipal, state and employer-provided paid leave programs. The results are, well, all over the map.


Recently, the National Partnership for Women and Families handed the US a report card based on each state’s family-friendly policies. Take a look.

National Partnership for Women & Families grades by state laws that help new parents


Only one state received an A: California. The Golden State, a decade ago, became the first in the nation to introduce a paid leave policy. It provides partial income replacement (55 percent) for six weeks to care for and bond with a new baby or ill family member. And, California offers job-protected sick days plus reasonable workplace accommodations for pregnant women.

Coming in with an A- are New York and Washington D.C. The former offers up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for part-time and full-time workers and doesn’t exclude small businesses. The latter tacks on an extra month of unpaid leave to the FMLA, while granting eight weeks of paid leave to government employees.

Illinois, Massachusetts, and Vermont each receive a B for the steps they’ve taken to protect working parents through FMLA expansions, paid sick days, or other family friendly policies. You can check out how your state stacks up here

Currently, only four states have active paid family leave laws: California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York (effective 2018). Massachusetts could become the fifth. On July 30, 2016, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed the MA Paid Family Leave Bill. This policy would establish 16 weeks of family care leave and 26 weeks of disability leave with partial compensation (90% weekly pay by 2020). The proposal, which would be the most generous in the country, is now in the hands of the House. Stay tuned.

As with paid leave, there are also four states with statewide paid sick day laws in effect: Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, and Oregon. These laws grant workers paid sick days to care for sick family members, recover from illnesses, or otherwise seek medical care.

Lastly, there are a dozen states including Alabama, Oklahoma, and Michigan that have not passed any laws at all since the FMLA.


Then there are cities. San Francisco, for example, offers 12 weeks of fully paid parental leave to about 30,000 employees. Other cities with paid parental leave policies in place include: Atlanta, GA; Dayton, OH; Boston, MA; New York City, NY; Portland, OR; Austin, TX, Seattle, WA; Chicago, IL; and St. Paul, MN.  Plus, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, NYC, and San Diego are among the 35 cities that give workers access to paid sick days. And with more than 40 million people lacking access to a single paid sick day, it makes sense that cities would step up to bat.


From Netflix, which offers unlimited paid parental leave for 12 months, to Facebook’s four-month policy, companies have gradually been jumping on board the family-friendly train, offering and increasing maternity and paternity leave benefits.

Check out Care@Work’s coverage of Companies with Great Maternity Leave and Companies with Great Paternity Leave.

The benefits may have steamed up in Silicon Valley, but they haven’t stopped there. Etsy and Goldman Sachs, among others, have hopped over state (and industry) boundaries, offering up competitive paid leave policies.

Still, despite all of this progress over the past 25 years, only 13 percent of workers in the US have access to paid leave. After more than two decades of private and smaller-scale expansions to the FMLA, we are working toward a paid, job-protected blanket policy.

So what does the future hold for paid leave in the United States?

There has been movement at the federal level, perhaps most notably including U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act. More widely known as the FAMILY Act, this proposal would establish a national insurance fund (paid by employee and employer contributions) that costs about $2 per worker per week and would provide 12 weeks of paid leave with 66 percent wage replacement.

Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has a similar 12-week, 66 percent wage replacement plan, only she plans to fund it through tax reforms on the wealthy.

The American family has grown up a lot in the past 25 years. That doesn’t just mean that they’re done crimping their hair and wearing flannel (which, they’re not). Actually, the entire composition of the American family has changed. Women today are breadwinners or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of families with children. There is no longer one dominant family form and parents today are older and better educated. As these changes continue to develop, it seems that the future of the FMLA would adapt as well.

With companies, cities, and states offering paid leave, FMLA is starting to feel ancient . And it feels like we’re finally reaching the critical mass needed to push the U.S. to adopt a policy providing paid family leave for all Americans.

What do you think? Will we have a federal paid leave policy before FMLA turns 30?


It is hard to say if FMLA will have federal paid leave before 30 years from establishment. There are too many variables involved, like depending on the federal government.

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