Twenty years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, was signed into law. The FMLA granted certain workers new and important rights, including the ability to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave after a birth or adoption, but it fell short in at least two important respects. First, the leave guaranteed under the law is unpaid, making it difficult for many covered workers to take advantage of their new rights. Second, the FMLA does not cover about 40 percent of the American workforce. These workers don’t meet the law’s eligibility criteria, the most important of which are requirements that the worker have been on the job for at least 1,250 hours in the year preceding the leave and that the worker’s employer have at least 50 employees. Moreover, since employers mostly control access to time off and there are no federal laws that set minimum standards, time off has been seen as a perk for higher-paid employees. Thus, even within the same firm, some workers may have more access to time off, or paid time off, than others.
Without downplaying the historical significance of the FMLA’s guarantee of job-protected leave for a majority of U.S. workers, this review of Census Bureau data from the first two decades of the FMLA suggests that the law had a limited impact on the frequency of parental leave and no impact on the likelihood that parental leave is paid.
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