Wonky Word Wednesdays: Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

We apologize that it has been a few weeks since our last wonky word (we know you were concerned). But now that the session is over and we’ve recovered – the wonky words are back!

Last week, in honor of Mother’s Day, we wrote a blog asserting that paid leave is a gift all moms should have. And today there is a national twitter storm, #MissionPossible and #PaidLeave, highlighting policies like paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, fair pay, fair work schedules and affordable childcare, and how these policies deeply impact the economic security of women and families.

We thought that many of you might ask– isn’t that what the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is for? Good question. Let’s dedicate this wonky word to the FMLA.

The FMLA passed Congress in 1993. It guarantees eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to care for a newborn, a sick family member (including elderly parents), or to recover from their own serious health conditions, including pregnancy. It also provides job protection, so an employer cannot fire an employee during this leave. There was an amendment included in 2009 that extends the leave to up to 26 weeks for family members caring for a wounded service member.

While FMLA provides many families greater protections in the workforce, unfortunately, it doesn’t help everyone. In fact, only 40% of the American workforce is eligible for FMLA. Here are some of the details:

  • It only applies to businesses employing 50 or more workers within a 75-mile radius.
  • It only covers people who have worked for an employer for at least 12 months or have at least 1,250 work hours during the 12-month period immediately preceding the leave (excluding many part-time employees).
  • It does not cover family caregiving for domestic partners, in-laws, siblings, grandparents or grandchildren.

Oh, and one other big detail – the leave is unpaid. For many, especially low-income and single parents, spending 12 weeks without a paycheck is simply not an option.

As we stated in our blog last week, women comprise nearly half of the workforce and their income is a significant – if not entire – share of total household earnings. Because women are still the primary caregivers in many families, unpaid leave policies (if they even qualify) force moms to make difficult decisions between the workplace and home, paying rent and taking care of a sick child, or keeping a job and taking care of an aging parent.

Over the next few months, MBPC will conduct research on paid leave policies and the impacts these policies have on families and our economy. We will keep you up to date on the progress of this research and how these policies can help families in Montana.

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