1993's Family and Medical Leave Act mandated 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave
Only 14% of civilian workers had access to paid leave in 2016
Twenty-five years ago today, on February 5, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act. The first and only federal leave legislation in the United States, it guarantees nearly 60% of employees 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave to take care of a new baby, a sick relative or their own serious medical condition.
While happy with the new legislation, family leave advocates – some of whom had spent the better part of a decade fighting for the policy – didn’t consider it an outright victory at the time. The law was better from nothing, yes, but also far from ideal.
It leaves out lots of men and women (it doesn’t cover freelancers and those who work at companies with fewer than 50 employees, for example), it offers nothing in the way of income replacement, and the time period is too short, at least compared with more family-friendly countries such as France, the Netherlands and Spain, all of which offer 16 weeks at full wage replacement.
“We always knew that we needed to expand it,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of 27 state coalitions pushing for paid sick days and paid family leave.
Bravo and others advocates have continued the fight, making gains on the state level and encouraging businesses to expand their paid leave policies and offer them to more employees, including men and part-time workers.
They’ve also turned paid leave into a talking point used by politicians on both sides of the aisle, most recently heard as a pledge from President Donald Trump during last week’s State of the Union address.
Even with all these successes, the federal policy has remained unchanged since Clinton signed it a quarter-century ago. The United States still holds the unenviable title of being the only industrialized country that does not offer all of its citizens paid family leave. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 14% of civilian workers had access to paid leave in 2016, and that’s only thanks to state laws or employer largess.
The current United States family leave policy harms women and men in all stages of life, in myriad ways. In particular, it holds long-lasting consequences for new mothers. Not receiving paid time off holds women back professionally and financially. Limited and unpaid leave also has a less quantifiable, but nevertheless damaging, effect on their mental health.
The fact that most mothers are either receiving no paid leave or not enough paid leave from their employers sends the message that they should be able to cope with what is, for many, impossible. They’re forced to choose between professional concerns including job security, professional ambition and paying their bills and personal concerns including adequately recovering from childbirth and caring for – and bonding with – their new child.
These conditions can easily lead to a deluge of sorrow and self-doubt and negatively affect how a woman views herself and her life over the long run. Some women internalize the message implied by the US family leave policy and perceive themselves as deficient parents and/or deficient workers as a result. Others make compromises, forced to let go of their career and/or parenting plans because they can’t afford it.
“It’s a public health emergency that we don’t offer more support for parents in this country,” said Darby Saxbe, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California.