October is National Work and Family Month. The best way to celebrate our nation’s commitment to both work and family is updating our nation’s archaic and ineffective paid leave laws.
Twenty-five years ago this past February, American families finally gained the modest support for caregiving that the rest of the industrialized world long enjoyed when President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law. That measure gave eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child or a seriously ill family member, or to deal with a serious health condition of their own, including pregnancy. It also included special benefits for military families.
No longer do covered workers have to risk their jobs and the health insurance that (for many) goes with employment to carry out family caregiving duties — risks that most often affect women, who are generally (though not always) the frontline caregivers in their families.
The law has been used more than 200 million times to protect the jobs of those who needed time off for caregiving or for their own recovery. But it was only a first step. Millions of workers are not eligible to use this benefit because their employers are too small to be covered by the law or are otherwise exempt. Millions cannot use the law because it only provides access to unpaid leave, and they cannot go without a paycheck. Millions have needs that are not covered by the law, which is limited to caring only for a spouse, child or parent. These workers are disproportionately women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals and young people.
What should we do to update the law now? We should expand the number of employees covered by the FMLA to include all who work for a paycheck. The current requirement that employees must be working a minimum number of hours and have been on the job for one year should be reduced or eliminated — particularly important at a time when more workers are employed in multiple part-time positions, and newly-hired workers in a gig economy may not have been on the job for long. Further, the law should apply to all companies, not just those with 50 or more employees.
We should expand the definition of family for the purposes of the law. Today more than one-quarter of family caregivers provide care for an adult family member who falls outside the FMLA’s definition, including parents-in-law, grandparents, aunts or uncles, siblings and other relatives. The law should be updated to include the broader range of caregiver relationships that are part of our lives now, so that workers can use leave to care for an adult child, domestic partner, grandparent, grandchild, parent-in-law or sibling. The law should also include a bereavement provision, allowing eligible workers to take time off to grieve the death of a child, parent or spouse.
A comprehensive family leave policy should also include access to time off for the more than 12 million women and men who experience sexual violence, rape or stalking by an intimate partner every year. As we unmask the horror of sexual abuse in the #MeToo era, survivors need to be able to take time off to seek medical attention, obtain a restraining order or relocate to a safe place.
Finally, eligible workers should be able to use a limited number of unpaid hours per year to attend a child’s school meetings or events, or for adult children to accompany a parent to medical appointments — often called “necessities leave.”
In an era of stagnant wages, inequality and tax policies favoring the rich, it is all the more important that we as a nation prioritize humane, family-friendly policies that give a leg up to those most in need of assistance, help stabilize the work force, and relieve the anxiety that comes from having to decide between a job and the needs of a sick loved one.
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, introduced in Congress by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), is modeled on successful state programs and would create a comprehensive, national paid leave program. It’s time to modernize our paid leave laws, and passing the FAMILY Act is the best way to honor working families this month.
Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women.