Point of View

20 years in, Family Leave Act doesn’t go far enough

February 15, 2013 

This month, our nation marks a milestone as the Family Medical Leave Act turns 20 years old. It was designed to allow Americans to take unpaid time off to deal with illness or the arrival of a new baby without the risk of losing a job. It was a giant leap forward for American workers.

But it didn’t go far enough. Forty percent of Americans are not covered by FMLA due to a narrow definition of “family” and multiple business exemptions. Many people who are eligible to use FMLA don’t take it because they cannot afford it. It is time for our policies to catch up with our contemporary work force.

I remember the day in 2007 that I was denied FMLA leave. I was three months pregnant with my first child. I had already written a multi-page document about how I was going to cover my job responsibilities during my maternity leave. I submitted a well-thought-out formal request, but my boss’ answer was “no.”

It turns out the federally funded nonprofit I worked for was exempt from offering FMLA because of some little-known exemptions. That took me by surprise.

My employer had well over 100 employees, and I had been employed for nearly three years. I learned, though, that for FMLA to apply, a business must have more than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. Our three offices were separated by 80 miles each.

There were literally 5 miles between me and uninterrupted bonding with my baby. They could have made an exception. It was right there in the “Family comes first” section of the employee manual.

But I was deemed “too essential” to take off 12 weeks, and they didn’t want to “set a precedent.” I had to return to work after six weeks medical leave (using all my vacation and sick time) or risk losing my job. And I needed my job.

I dragged my exhausted, sore, depressed body back to work to sit in an office writing documents and checking emails, while my newborn baby was at home.

It dawned on me then that many women don’t have the “luxury” of any maternity leave, paid or unpaid. Most states do not have short-term disability, and a note from the doctor does not pay the bills. I saved up my vacation and sick time, and we planned for a few weeks without pay. Yet many Americans have no guaranteed sick time or vacation or maternity leave. Some mothers go back to work after one week because they can’t afford to miss a paycheck.

It makes me sad that Americans would allow their fellow workers – our mothers – to be treated that way.

Ironically, my husband’s company, which was clearly exempt from FMLA with fewer than 20 employees, cheerfully offered him four weeks of unpaid leave to care for our child while I went back to work. He brought her in every day so I could breastfeed her over lunch.

I found a new job within the year. My boss was shocked when I left. Despite multiple management meetings discussing employee retention strategies, one of which included raises for all, management failed to see that loyalty and flexibility are worth their weight in gold.

It is time to expand access to FMLA. This includes expanding the definition of “family.” Today, women comprise the majority of the work force and blended families are the norm. Currently, under FMLA only spouses, parents and children under 18 qualify as “family.” Family should also include siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, in-laws, step-family and children over age 18.

The N.C. Caregiver Relief Act, introduced in 2011, will be refiled later this month. It would broaden the definition of family to include these people.

I also propose that the employee minimum be reconsidered. Under the current law, even companies with thousands of employees would be exempt if each location had fewer than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. This seems unfair to our workers.

It’s also time to look more closely at providing employees the opportunity to earn sick days for those short-term illnesses we and our families all face.

In the end, my former employer failed to recognize that taking care of its employees, not fear or money, garners loyalty. All working families should be able to use FMLA. And if businesses want to boost productivity, they should realize that investing in employees’ work-family balance is the key to success.

Just ask my current employer.

Jeannine Sato is a member of NC MomsRising and program director at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.

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