Family Leave: Why It Must Be Reformed For Millennials


For millennials, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) passed when we were children — 20 years ago. Since then, other than a few technical adjustments and minor expansions, this federal law requiring employers to provide employees with job-protected unpaid leave for medical and family reasons (think illness, pregnancy, or military deployment as of 2008), hasn’t really changed. This week, Majority Leader Eric Cantor heralded the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 as a major congressional priority for the GOP, which allows private sector employees to enter an arrangement with their employer to earn comp time instead of paid overtime.  

FMLA arose from a need to address the number of single-parent households and two working-parent households who faced a choice between job security and parenting. Yet still today, workers face challenges — as parents, as elderly-caregivers, and as patients when faced with a medical condition. We do not have anything close to the more generous leave policies of other industrialized nations, which in many cases provide paid leave or extended leave for employees at all levels. Technology, the strides made for women in the workforce, greater pressures to accommodate a work-life balance give us a great deal more opportunity to be creative with flexible and scalable solutions.

Whether through the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013, the Healthy Families Act which would require employers to permit employees to earn an hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, or expanding coverage to all employees (including part-time and small businesses, Congress seems to just put its toe in to updating the law. These are piecemeal approaches to a broader question, particularly for young workers.

Any proposal for changes to FMLA should recognize some of the inherent challenges to administering such a policy — balancing the legitimate needs of employers with the legitimate needs of employees. FMLA is unpaid leave — leaving many families unable to afford to take advantage of its provisions. Nearly 5% of eligible employees have unmet needs for leave and feel hindered in taking advantage of FMLA rights because they cannot afford to spend that time without the income. Part-time employees and small employers are not subject to FMLA requirements, and face similar cost realities. These are some key elements ripe for improvement.

Not having comprehensive paid leave for parents, elderly care-takers, illness, and military families his implications for our broader economy. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, expansion of “family friendly” policies between 1990 and 2010 explained nearly 30% of the deterioration in women’s labor force participation against other OECD countries. In March 2011, only 11% of private workers and 17% of public-sector workers reported having access to paid maternity leave — even more so for lower income earners, who reported a mere 5% in the private sector and 14% in the public sector, respectively. Challenges associated with having a family in the United States are not unique, and while we prepare policies for retirement, workplace injury, health care needs through insurance, and national entitlement programs with the long-term outcomes in mind, we do not do so for paid leave in our public policy.

When it comes to advancing paid leave, some companies have led the way. Google cut their new-mom attrition in half by expanding their offer of fully-paid maternity leave from three months to five. The National Alliance for Caregiving and ReACT released a report in March of last year featuring best practices in workplace elder-care from a variety of businesses and other entities, including Aetna, Intel, United Health and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. More and more, employers are seeing a business argument to providing better family benefits to attract certain employees. This is an attitude we must capture to advance FMLA to include paid parental leave, address issues like family responsibilities discrimination (which primarily impacts pregnancy claims and maternity leave), and address issues like paid sick leave, particularly for workers of hourly jobs who choose to go to work sick rather than lose the wages.

We can achieve these goals through greater flexibility in work schedules with comp time or telework, dedication to family needs and care, better use of technology ... the enhancements we make and that we insist upon will impact the structural and social expectations of a work-life balance in the decades to come. As we watch battles on issues like contraception, violence against women, fair pay between sexes — issues that, to our generation, seem like no-brainers — we must think about where we are as a nation and where we can be. Advancing the conversation towards future generations is critical to ensuring that proposals put forth are solutions we need.