🚗 🚙 Turn your trusty old car into trustworthy journalism Learn more

As the Family and Medical Leave Act turns 30, millions of Americans still lack access to paid leave

Dylan Miettinen Feb 3, 2023
An estimated 44% of Americans are not entitled to paid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for NYC for Paid Leave

As the Family and Medical Leave Act turns 30, millions of Americans still lack access to paid leave

Dylan Miettinen Feb 3, 2023
An estimated 44% of Americans are not entitled to paid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for NYC for Paid Leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act, or the FMLA, was signed into law in on Feb. 5, 1993, by President Bill Clinton. It was landmark legislation that enabled millions of working Americans to take necessary time off to receive the care they need or to care for a family member.

The 30th anniversary was celebrated at a ceremony at the White House on Thursday, with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and former President Clinton in attendance. 

“No American should ever have to choose between a paycheck and taking care of a family member or taking care of themselves,” said President Biden.

On Thursday, the president also issued a memorandum encouraging federal agencies to expand access to unpaid leave, including during their first year of work. 

While the three-decade anniversary marks a milestone labor law, the United States remains woefully behind its peers in providing time off to workers for the care of newborns or family members — paid or otherwise.

What do I need to know about the FMLA?

The FMLA guarantees qualified workers the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year. That leave is earmarked for medical leave regarding serious conditions, parental leave, caregiving leave or leave to address the impact of military deployment.

Roughly 56% of American workers are covered by the FMLA. It also guarantees job protection, continued health insurance for the duration of the leave and protection against employer retaliation.

Workers have used the law more than 315 million times since its passage, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Wait, wait, wait. You said unpaid?

Yup. The United States is the only wealthy country in the world without paid leave. It also remains a global outlier by not offering any form of paid parental leave or leave for a serious health problem. 

“We are wildly behind our economic peers. But really, we’re wildly behind the entire rest of the world,” said Molly Weston Williamson, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Because we exist in one of the richest countries in the history of the world, and yet federal law does not guarantee a single day of paid leave to any worker.” 

Unless covered by state low or company policy, workers in the United States are not entitled to any paid parental leave. Check out the maps below to see how the U.S. compares to other countries across the globe.

So who isn’t covered by the FMLA?

There are certain criteria that both employers and employees have to meet in order to be covered by the FMLA. 

Employees must have worked at eligible employers for at least 12 months, clocking in at least 1,250 work hours (which figures out to 24 hours a week). They also have to be at a location with at least 50 employees within 75 miles. 

Employers covered by the FMLA include public agencies and public or private elementary and secondary schools, no matter the number of people they employ. The FMLA also applies to private employers with 50 or more workers who have been employed for a set period of time within the past two years. 

All told, an estimated 44% of Americans are ineligible for the FMLA. And access remains unequal. 

“People who work for smaller employers get left out, so think restaurants, think retail,” said Weston Williamson. “People who work part time are more likely to be left out, and people who change jobs more frequently are more likely to get left out.”

Low-income earners are less likely to be FMLA-eligible. For example, some 38% of low-wage workers are covered by FMLA versus 63% of those earning more than $15 per hour. 

Access to FMLA also splinters along racial lines, with Black, Hispanic and American Indian workers less likely to qualify or be able to afford unpaid leaves. A 2022 study by the Urban Institute found that access to paid time off for births, adoptions and caregiving splintered along racial lines as well.

Weston Williamson said that, unsurprisingly, the No. 1 reason workers don’t take family or medical leave is because of being unable to afford to do so for even a day or two — let alone several weeks. 

Are there any other gaps in the FMLA?

Absolutely. Besides the list that employers and workers must check off to be eligible for FMLA protections, advocates of paid leave point to the narrow definition of family that the FMLA includes

A person may take unpaid time off to care for a child, spouse or parent. In order to take care of a child over the age of 18 though, that child must be rendered incapable of caring for themselves because of a disability. While common-law marriages are covered by the FMLA in states that recognize them, the protections don’t cover all unmarried partners. 

“So you can't take care of your adult children if they have a medical emergency and you have to go take care of them. For siblings, for grandparents, extended family who may have helped you when you were growing up, and just chosen family,” noted Sherry Leiwant, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, a national nonprofit that advocates for paid leave and the rights of caregivers. 

“Our families in America look a lot different than they did 30 years ago,” she added.

Is there any traction at the federal level to expand paid leave?

Though the FMLA has been gradually expanded through amendments, those expansions have been incremental. President Biden’s Build Back Better Plan would have provided four weeks of universal paid family and medical leave to workers. But when the legislative package was gutted, paid leave was among the items on the chopping block

“The prognosis is not great at the federal level, at least not in the next two years,” Leiwant said. 

Still, nearly four out of five Americans support paid family leave, according to the progressive research group Navigator. As one cheeky press release put it, that makes paid leave more popular than pumpkin spice lattes. (We’re lookin’ at you, Kai.)  

This conclusion is supported by additional polling by Pew Research, which also showed that most Americans think employers should pay workers for their time off rather than state or federal governments. 

 U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton walk into the East Room for an event to mark the 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act at the White House on February 02, 2023 in Washington, DC
Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton at an event marking the 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act on Feb. 2. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Speaking of, what about state governments? Are they doing anything to expand paid or unpaid leave? 

More than a dozen states have expanded the individuals or situations covered by the FMLA, or provided rights to unpaid time off for pregnancies and childbirth. These rules vary in terms of an employer's size and the number of hours worked. 

“We've seen, with the rise of the laws — most of which have been passed in just the last few years — that states are really stepping up to lead the way in ensuring the rights for workers,” said Weston Williamson. 

While advocates acknowledged that state governments may be the best routes to currently expand family and medical leave, Lewaint said there are some states that simply may not — which is where expanded federal law would be helpful. 

Similar legislation regarding time off has also been passed at city and county levels across the nation.

Private employers are also filling in the gaps left by the FMLA. An estimated 35% of workers are employed at companies that offer paid parental leave and roughly two-thirds of employers offer paid sick leave to full-time employees.  

While opponents of paid family leave cite the hardship for companies complying with “expensive or inflexible mandates,” advocates have pointed to the fact that such policies are inherently pro-family.

Plus, research on the economic impacts of paid leave also shows that it could help boost women’s workforce participation, while also boosting GDP and promoting wage equality.

Still, despite a growing number of businesses offering paid family leave, A Better Balance’s Lewaint thinks that an expanded, inclusive government program is the only way to ensure that workers will take the time they need to care for themselves and others. 

“[The FMLA] was signed into law 30 years ago. And the economy has changed. Workplaces have changed,” Lewaint said. “So I do think that there needs to be changes to the FMLA so that time off is something that can be taken advantage of by everybody in the workforce.”

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.