20 Facts For The 20th Anniversary Of America’s Family Leave Policy

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Parent-baby 3x2

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Twenty years ago on Monday, the first piece of legislation President Bill Clinton signed into law took effect: the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. That day, the United States took an important step toward guaranteeing American citizens time off for a new child or sick family member, the kinds of protections taken for granted in not only most developed countries but also in countries like Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

President Clinton applauded the bill as “a matter of pure common sense and a matter of common decency.” Twenty years later, however, as Jane Farrell with the Center for American Progress observes, much remains to be done to reach this goal.

Instead of birthday candles to recognize this milestone, here are 20 facts about this influential yet incomplete piece of legislation:

1. The FMLA went into effect on August 5, 1993 after at least nine years of debate in Congress.

2. Since employees with a college degree are more likely to be able to afford unpaid leave than those without one, hearings on the FMLA prior to its passage involved earnest and often heated discussion of whether or not the term “yuppie” was pejorative.

3. If an employee or a family member falls seriously ill, if an employee or a worker’s spouse has a baby, or if he or she welcomes an adopted or foster child into their home, that employee is entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and the security that his employer will not replace him during the time off. After returning from FMLA leave, an employee has the right to be returned to the same or an equivalent position with similar benefits, wages, and terms and conditions.

4. Employees are entitled to continued health benefits coverage while on leave.

5. An employee must work for an FMLA-covered employer, which means the company employs at least 50 people.

6. An employee must have worked at least one year in total for her employer in order to qualify. This year need not be continuous.

7. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers providing FMLA cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.

8. About 60 percent of workers are protected by the FMLA.

9. Over four out of five employees who have had a co-worker take FMLA leave say that they were neutrally or positively impacted.

10. Nine out of 10 FMLA-covered employers report that it neutrally or positively impacts their employees’ morale.

11. The FMLA has been used 100 million times since its passage.

12. 17.5 million people used the FMLA in 2012 alone.

13. The FMLA’s protections now extend to many same-sex couples. Since the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act this June, the government can recognize same-sex marriages in any state that recognizes them, too. This means that LGBTQ couples in states that recognize same-sex marriage can make use of the FMLA. (This protection is not valid in states where same-sex marriage is still not legally recognized, though.)

14. The FMLA is even more generous toward those injured in combat. Family members or spouses of an injured member of the Armed Forces may take as many as 26 weeks of unpaid leave to care for their loved ones. This policy came into effect in 2008 as an amendment to the FMLA through the National Defense Authorization Act.

15. “Parent” is defined by the actions of the relationship, not by biology or legality. The primary caretakers of a child, be it a grandparent stepping in for an absent parent or a same-sex couple who have adopted a child in a state that does not recognize gay marriage, are eligible for the same unpaid leave and job security protections as a married couple taking parental leave to care for their sons or daughters.

16. When it comes to sick leave, however, the act narrows considerably. As the Center for American Progress previously reported, “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.”

17. The U.S. is one of just four countries in the world, along with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Papaua New Guinea, that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave.

18. The overwhelming majority of people who do not take the sick or parental leave they are guaranteed by the FMLA continue to work because they cannot afford to take unpaid leave. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 78 percent of those eligible to take leave but do not do so cite being unable to afford unpaid leave.

19. An employer can require that paid vacation leave be used up before an employee makes use of the FMLA unpaid leave protections. This may mean new moms and dads, cancer patients, and anyone else who needs to take time off because of a medical or family issue may not have the same amount of vacation days as other co-workers.

20. The FMLA is just one step in the history of the development of employment law that ensures that America is a rewarding—and efficient— place to work. Another step would be made if Congress passed the Healthy Families Act.


This post originally stated that Monday is the anniversary of the signing of the FMLA when it fact it was the day that it went into effect. Some of the original facts have been removed and replaced with more accurate ones.

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Nora Goebelbecker and Sonalee Rau are interns with the Economic Policy Team at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.