Occupational Health & Safety

DOL Officials Mark 20th Anniversary of FMLA

A survey suggests the law has worked well workers and even for employers, according to the agency.

A survey of more than 2,800 adult Americans by the U.S. Department of Labor asked employers and workers how the Family and Medical Leave Act has affected them since it was enacted 20 years ago. The survey showed 16 percent of workers took FMLA leave within the last year, and businesses have had few problems implementing the law. Workers' inability to afford unpaid leave is the main reason workers don't take FMLA leave when they need it, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families (NPWF), which wrote the law.

"We intended the FMLA to be the first step on the road to a family-friendly nation," said NPWF President Debra L. Ness. "It's had an enormous impact, letting tens of millions of workers take leave when they needed it the most, and changing the culture in this country. Those are women who needed medical care during difficult pregnancies, fathers who took time to care for children fighting cancer, adult sons and daughters caring for frail parents, and workers taking time to recover from their own serious illnesses. Because of the FMLA, their health insurance continued and their jobs were waiting when they returned to work. The law has been a huge success, but it's time –- past time –- to take the next step. We are asking Congress to expand the law so more workers can take leave for more reasons, and to adopt a national paid family and medical leave program."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also wants the law reformed, but it disagrees FMLA has worked as intended. This organization has said employers remain confused by the law's requirements, and some workers have abused the law, which was enacted to ensure job protection for covered workers during a "serious health condition" of that worker or a family member, or to care for a newborn or adopted child.

The DOL survey found:

  • Women made up 56 percent of employees who took leave in the past year.
  • Most of the workers who took leave (57 percent) did so for their own illness, while 22 percent said they took leave for reasons related to a new child and 19 percent took it to care for a parent, spouse, or child with a serious health condition.
  • Forty percent of workers reported they were away from work for 10 days or less, and 70 percent were back at work within 40 days.

The law applies only to employers with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius and people who have worked at their current employer for at least one year and 1,250 hours within the past year. FMLA leave isn't available to caregivers of parents-in-law, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, domestic partners, or same-sex spouses. It provides unpaid leave only. Workers have used FMLA leave more than 100 million times since President Clinton signed the act into law.

"This new study from the Department of Labor makes a compelling case to expand the law and adopt a paid leave plan," Ness said. According to NPWF, paid family leave programs are working well in California and New Jersey, but there is no such program at the federal level.

"The Family and Medical Leave Act codified a simple and fundamental principle: Workers should not have to choose between the job they need and the family members they love and who need their care," said Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris. "The FMLA has helped millions upon millions of working families manage challenging personal circumstances at very little cost to their employers and with very little disruption in the workplace."

"The significance of the FMLA is in its recognition that workers aren't just contributing to the success of a business, but away from their jobs they are contributing to the health and well-being of their families. Our survey results show that, for two decades, granting job-protected leave has been good for employers and good for millions of workers and their loved ones. The FMLA is working,” said Mary Beth Maxwell, acting deputy administrator for DOL's Wage and Hour Division.

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