The FMLA Is Turning 30. It’s Grown Older, But Now It’s Time to Get Wiser.

The year is 1993. You’ve just put on your favorite tapered trousers, blasted Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” through your wired headphones, and embarked on your daily commute to work. But this morning, your anxious thoughts are ringing in your ears louder than even Mariah ever could. 

You’re six months pregnant, and you have to tell your boss today. You know that your company doesn’t offer any kind of maternity leave. So, you keep asking yourself the same questions as you lie in bed at night: 

Will I get fired if I ask to take time off work to give birth? And if I lose my job, would my husband and I be able to get by on his salary alone? What if we get kicked out of our apartment, or can’t afford food and clothing for the baby? Should I just use my vacation days to recover? But how would that work, when I only have 10 left? 

Thirty years ago, the answer from employers was selfish but straightforward: 

That’s not my problem.  

Employees had no right to take time away from work to care for themselves or for their loved ones. Workers were instead forced to put their jobs on the line when they were simultaneously grappling with a cancer diagnosis, welcoming a new child, or preparing for a spouse’s deployment. 

The status quo changed on February 5, 1993, when President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law, and for the first time guaranteed that eligible employees could take up to 12 weeks of leave to care for themselves or their loved oneswithout risking their jobs.  

Yes, the FMLA was a landmark piece of legislation. But as we celebrate 30 years of its protection, we also need to remember all the places where federal law falls short of truly supporting working families. Not only did the FMLA exclude millions of workers from coverage, the only type of leave it guarantees is unpaid. In other words, people have the “right” to take time away from work, but your employer doesn’t have to pay you. If you and your family are only scraping by every month, how are you going to put food on the table, pay rent, and manage basic expenses without a paycheck for weeks on end? 

The answer? Many people won’t be able to. And so even with the protections of the FMLA, too many workers are forced to make impossible choices between their jobs, their own health, and caring for their families.  

Is this really what we want the next 30 years of workplace “justice” to look like in our country? As we look toward the future, maybe it’s time we started asking ourselves a different set of questions: 

What if employers of all sizes were covered by the FMLA, not just those with 50 or more employees? What if the FMLA protected part-time workers? What if we defined “family” more broadly to better reflect the lived experiences of caregivers? What if workers were covered as soon as they started a new job? 

What if workers were guaranteed PAID leave? 

Advocates have been asking these questions for decades. But this year, it feels like Congress is finally listening. This week alone, we saw four bills introduced that would amend the FMLA to broaden protections for working families: 

  • The Job Protection Act will eliminate the 50-employee threshold, cover part-time workers, and cover workers who have been at the job for less than one year. 
  • The Caring for All Families Act expands the definition of “family” under the FMLA to include domestic partners, grandparents, siblings, adult children, in-laws, and other significant relationships. 
  • The ESP Family Leave Act expands FMLA benefits to specifically meet the needs of educational support professionals, like teacher’s assistants and school custodians. 
  • The Comprehensive Paid Leave for Federal Employees Act converts the 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave for federal employees into paid leave. 

And later this month, lawmakers will reintroduce the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act and the Healthy Families Act, which would provide workers with paid family and medical leave and paid sick time.  

As we mark the 30th anniversary of the FMLA, let’s think about what we want our workplaces to look like three decades from now.  

The year is 2053. Mariah Carey is (miraculously) still singing. As you put on your low-rise jeans (catastrophically, they made a comeback) and your wired headphones (yep, those still exist), what kind of workplace do you envision heading into? 

And more importantly, how can we start building towards that better, more equitable future today?