The Family and Medical Leave Act Was a Huge Step Forward for Working Americans

Tim Waddill changes Chase, his newborn twin son's diaper, left, as Stephanie Waddill, back, gives a bottle to their other twin boy, Connor, at their home in Irving, Texas, Friday, June 16, 2006.

Three years ago, as my wife and I prepared for the birth of our first child, we had innumerable anxieties, as any first-time parent will tell you. Beyond the basics—getting the baby’s room ready, making sure we had all the diapers, bottles, and tiny shoes our daughter would need, figuring out the fastest route to the hospital for when my wife went into labor—was the underlying concern over the health of our soon-to-be newborn and the health of the new mother.

There was so much to worry about, but one thing that never worried me was whether I would lose my job and my health insurance through the tumult of the baby’s first year. That’s because the federal Family and Medical Leave Act entitled my wife and I to take job-protected leave to care for our little girl. With the impending birth of our second child coinciding with the act’s 20th anniversary, it feels like the perfect moment to both celebrate its importance for men and women alike and to point out a few ways we can work to improve it.

The Family and Medical Leave Act allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave in order to care for a sick family member, a newborn, a newly adopted child, or a newly placed foster child. The same allowance exists if the employee has a serious health condition—provided that they have been on the job for at least 12 months, have worked at least 1,250 hours during that time, and work for an employer with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. Employees who take the leave cannot lose their jobs or their health insurance during that leave, and taking the leave cannot alter their terms of employment. It is incredible to think that prior to 1993, when the law was passed, a new father or mother could be fired if he or she took time off to bond with and care for their child.

About 17.5 million workers took leave covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act in 2012. That represents only about 13 percent of the total employee population. More than 40 percent of those who do take leave are men. The most common reason that employees take leave—both men and women—is their own health. Among the more than 40 percent of male employees who take leave for other reasons, however, most take it to either care for a new child or care for a sick child. In fact, among those workers who take FMLA leave, men are almost as likely as women to do so in order to care for a child.

Most workers who do take leave do so for just a short period of time. About half of men who take leave for nonparental reasons take fewer than 11 days. Of those who take leave to care for a new child, a whopping 70 percent took less than 11 days off from work to bond with and care for their newborn child, compared to only 23 percent of women.

As someone who took paternity leave relatively recently and expects to do so again in the near future, it’s hard for me to fathom taking fewer than 10 days off to help care for a newborn. But then again, I’m very fortunate. Not only does the Family and Medical Leave Act protect my job, but my employer—being the progressive institution that it is—offers paid leave to take care of a new child. So I was able to take more time off without the added worry of losing my paycheck.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case for most employees. Most employees who take leave have to either use up their vacation days or their sick days if they want to keep getting paid, or they have to go without pay entirely. Of those workers who do get some pay during their leave, less than 4 percent of men have paid parental leave, and less than 8 percent of women have it. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of those who take leave report that they have difficulty making ends meet during their time off.

We know that almost half of individuals who take leave report that they would take a longer leave were they able to receive more—or any—pay. And we know that there are millions more workers every year who need to take leave but simply cannot afford to do so.

The Family and Medical Leave Act was a huge step forward for working Americans. Fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, husbands, and wives across the country have been able to take the time they need to focus on their families during critical moments in their lives without fear of losing their jobs. But on the 20th anniversary of the law, it’s time for more steps forward. Protected leave is important, but for the millions of workers who can’t afford to take it, what good does it do?

I am thankful every day for the time I was able to spend at home with my baby girl, and I look forward to doing the same with my baby boy, whenever he decides to grace us with his presence. I am also thankful that because of the Family and Medical Leave Act, there was never a question of whether that time spent at home would make me lose my job. And I am thankful that my employer values my family enough to offer me paid parental leave. Shouldn’t every American have the opportunity to be so thankful?

Michael Linden is the Director for Tax and Budget Policy at the Center for American Progress.