Two Decades Later, Unpaid Family Leave Isn’t Enough

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Father baby

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Wednesday is the 21st anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed by President Clinton in 1993. The FMLA was a major step in helping American workers balance family and work. The act allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid but job-protected leave to take care of a newborn or adopted child, family member, or to recover from a personal illness.

Yet while the FMLA has helped American families for the last two decades, many still struggle financially when they are forced to take unpaid leave. A recent report by the Center for American Progress and the Center for Economic and Policy Research on the use of family leave since 1994 shows that many families cannot afford to take unpaid leave because one day of missed pay could easily become a day or more without food at home. In one 2012 survey of workers who received partial or no pay while on leave, approximately 31 percent reported that they cut their leave time short, 36 percent put off paying bills, 30 percent borrowed money, and 15 percent had to go on public assistance to make ends meet. Moreover, only 59 percent of U.S. workers are even eligible for the unpaid leave; the remaining 41 percent may risk their jobs to take care of their families.

In December 2013, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the FAMILY Act to protect more workers with paid family leave. The FAMILY Act offers workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the same circumstances as the FMLA and would give Americans the opportunity to take care of themselves and their families without risking their jobs and salaries. The FAMILY Act would also reach more Americans than the FMLA, covering around 80 percent of U.S. workforce.


The FAMILY Act would strengthen families by allowing parents to spend time with their children and it would empower women across the country by increasing workforce adhesion; women who take paid leave are more likely to be employed nine to 12 months after the birth of a child than women who take no leave at all. The FAMILY Act would also offer paid leave to caregivers to take care of elderly and disabled family members, a problem another CAP report highlights. Protecting workers with paid leave would allow them to be better workers and caregivers.

It’s time for a change in public policies on family leave and some states and cities have already moved forward on paid leave legislation. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are the first states with paid leave policies. Many cities, such as New York City, Washington, D.C., Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Jersey City, and Newark, as well as the state of Connecticut, have also passed paid sick leave legislation to support working families. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was a great first step for families and workers but its 21st anniversary is a good reminder we still have a long way to go.

Claudia Calderon Machicado is an intern on the economic policy team at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.