Wednesday, February 5, 2014

We've Come Not So Long A Way

This post is part of the Family Values @ Work Blog Carnival. To view more blog posts from the carnival, visit http://familyvaluesatwork.org/fmla/blog-carnival.  

1993. Just typing the year sets my mind spiraling through happy memories. 1993 was the year I began high school. It was a year of flannel shirts and clunky boots. It was the year I fell in love with baseball, and the year my dad and I went to see the Phillies in the playoffs. It is a year I can’t think of without smiling.

A lot has changed since then. My fashion sense is (somewhat) different, and so are the members of the Phillies. It’s been five years since I watched a playoff game with my dad: we managed to watch the Phillies on a tiny TV in his hospital room a few months before he died. As for my high school friends, when we talk, it is mostly on Facebook.

Oddly enough, though, what my high school friends and I often talk about is a bill that was signed into law on February 5, 1993, without any of us paying much attention: the Family and Medical Leave Act. This act guarantees up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave to qualified workers in order to care for a new baby or a seriously ill family member.

Often, it isn’t the act itself that comes up in conversation. But I always get the same question, whether speaking to friends with conservative or liberal backgrounds, and it is always asked with the same urgency.

“So, when are you going to start working on paid FMLA? I would support that. We really need it.”

My friends know that I work at PathWays PA, a group that led a large coalition twice to pass a paid sick days ordinance in Philly, only to have it vetoed by the mayor. Last year we were one vote shy of overturning that veto – and we’ll be back. Workers need to be able to earn paid sick days because FMLA, while a great step forward, doesn’t cover routine illness.

My friends’ question shouldn’t come as a surprise: most of them, like most people in this country, are breadwinners and caregivers. They needed time off in order to give birth or to adopt, and most didn’t have the luxury of taking that time without pay. After all, you can’t tell the bank or the utility company, “Sorry, I won’t be paying this month because I’m having a baby with no paid leave.”

Today, about two and a half times as many people as in 2000 who are eligible and need FMLA leave are not taking it, chiefly because they cannot afford it. That means most new mothers who worked through their pregnancy return to the job even before their twelve weeks of FMLA are up - if they had access to FMLA at all. Only about one-fifth of new mothers are covered by the FMLA.

For my friends and for me, the past 21 years have been a time of growth and change. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the FMLA. It was a great law in 1993, and it is still great today. But today’s working families need public policies that have grown with us and with our economy.

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