4 Reasons To Update The Family And Medical Leave Act For The 21st Century

President Clinton signs the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

Twenty years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed his first law: the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. The law, still the only one that is explicitly aimed at helping workers manage their work-life balance, provides unpaid leave for workers to recover from a serious illness or care for a new child without worrying about losing their job.

The law was a huge step forward at the time, and has been used 100 million times since its enactment. However, the law does not go far enough. Here are some of the reasons it needs to be updated:

1. It doesn’t cover 40 percent of workers. Due to FMLA restrictions, 2 in 5 workers are not eligible for its protections. Small businesses are exempt from the law, and employees need to have worked “a minimum of 1,250 hours in the 12 months before their leave is to begin” for FMLA to apply. According to the Department of Labor, more than 6 percent of workers “had an unmet need for leave in the past 18 months.”

2. It doesn’t cover care for a grandparent, same-sex partner, or many others. Workers are not eligible to use FMLA leave to care for “parents-in-law, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, domestic partners, or same-sex spouses,” ignoring the reality of today’s families.

3. Many workers can’t afford to use unpaid leave. Nearly half of workers who don’t access leave for which they are eligible say they do so because of the cost. The U.S. has no national policy regarding paid sick leave, which would give workers the opportunity to take time off while sick without worrying about losing their pay along with it.

4. The U.S. isn’t keeping up with the rest of the world. The U.S. is the only developed country that fails to provide some form of paid sick leave and is one of only three countries on Earth that doesn’t require paid maternity leave. As Bryce Covert noted at The Nation, “single parents in this country are the worst off compared to 16 other high-income countries, despite the fact that we have the highest rates of single parenthood.”

As Sarah Jane Glynn noted in the Atlantic, “36 percent of American workers over the age of 18 do not have access to any form of paid leave at all — not paid sick leave, not paid parental leave, not paid vacation.” FMLA was certainly a move in the right direction, but there’s still significant room to make policy that helps workers today.