Balancing Act: FMLA still helps families cope

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When I gave birth to my daughter, I returned home with a squirmy little bundle and immediately felt overwhelmed. Though I was exhausted from changing diapers and waking for feedings, I was thankful that my job was secure.

In our struggle to balance our family lives and our work lives, one law has made a giant difference for me and 35 million other American workers -- the Family Medical Leave Act.

This month, the Family Medical Leave Act celebrates its 20th year in existence. It's been a godsend for those of us who want time to bond with our newborn, care for an aging parent or deal with a health emergency without the fear of losing our jobs.

But two decades after President Bill Clinton signed the act into law, advocates say they still have unfinished business.

"It was meant to be a first step toward a family-friendly American workplace. But it is 20 years and we haven't gotten to the second step," said Judith Lichtman, senior adviser to the National Partnership for Women & Families and an original advocate for the act's passage.

The federal law says we can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if we work at a company with more than 50 employees, with a caveat that we must have been employed there for a year. The big benefit is that our jobs are protected during that leave.

Yet for all the benefit, the Family Medical Leave Act doesn't guarantee wages while workers are on leave, a component advocates had planned as a second step. According to a Department of Labor study, 78 percent of workers who needed unpaid leave did not use it because they could not afford it.

Proposed federal legislation would expand eligibility and introduce a paid family-leave insurance program. Funded through a small payroll tax, the program would provide two-thirds of an employee's wages for up to 12 weeks of leave.

"It's embarrassing, given where we are compared to our partners in the industrial world. There are very few countries that still don't provide paid leave," Ms. Lichtman said.

Still, there are some unforeseen consequences with FMLA. Employers say it can be difficult to track time off for workers who take their 12 weeks of leave a few hours at a time. And, even with the law on the books, some employers just don't comply, leading to lawsuits in federal courts around the country.

One of the biggest frustrations for the law's advocates is that as much as 40 percent of the workforce isn't even eligible since the law is confined to workplaces with 50 or more employees and excludes part-time workers.

On this anniversary, advocates say they will work toward getting the Family Medical Leave Act updated and expanded. New legislation drafted in Washington would expand eligibility to more of the workforce and introduce a nationwide paid family leave.

employment

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegal@gmail.com


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