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  • Rachel Loftspring

The Truth About FMLA

Over twenty years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was established in an attempt to promote equal employment opportunities for both men and women, and to help workers balance career and family life. It’s done some good to be sure, but it falls short.

The Act offers a certain appeal, but on second look, you just have to wonder, “Can’t we do better?” Like when Congress ratified the 19th Amendment almost 100 years ago. (You know, the one that gave women the right to vote. That was pretty awesome. Let’s do awesome again.)

When compared to all other industrialized nations, the U.S is embarrassingly stingy about paid parental leave.

Yet, we are a nation that believes in strengthening families. We are a nation that believes in industry, advancement and betterment of its people. We are curious and generous, hopeful and optimistic. Actions speak louder than words. Policies reflect values.

Let’s get real about what we’re actually doing to advance the principles we believe in.


The FMLA guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave with employer benefits for qualified medical and family reasons, including to care for a new child.

Due to the large number of exemptions (time with employer, hours worked, number of employees, etc), FMLA really only covers about 60% of American workers. Less than 1/5 of these are new mothers.

What’s more, because it is unpaid, many workers cannot actually afford to take the full 12 weeks of job-protected leave. It’s definitely not a viable option for most low-income families. Middle class families, as well, struggle to pocket an extra three months of earnings to provide for the time away from work.


There are 195 countries in the world. With little exception, they all offer paid maternity leave. Guess who is the exception? We are. The United States.

And we call ourselves a developed nation.

Even Saudi Arabia, a country where women do not have the right to drive a car, provides 10 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Other developed countries began offering paid leave to new mothers over 100 years ago. Paid leave is not some new and hip trend to follow. It has a lengthy history with proven success. It’s high time for the United States to get with the program.


According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top 10% of wage earners in the U.S have a 1 in 5 chance of being offered paid family leave at their jobs.

If you have a college degree, if you’re white, if you work full time, or if you’re in a union, you’re more likely to have access to paid family leave.

The bottom quartile has a 1 in 20 chance.


There is hope. While no federal law requires it, five states mandate paid family leave and are seeing positive results.


California led the charge by passing a paid leave law in 2002. It uses a temporary disability insurance fund to provide up to 6 weeks of paid leave at just over half, with a cap, of a worker’s weekly earnings. Workers contribute about $3 a month to the fund through a payroll tax.

New Jersey

New Jersey also uses a temporary disability insurance fund, providing up to 6 weeks of paid leave at 2/3, with a cap, of a worker’s weekly earnings. Leave can be used any time within a 12-month period after becoming a parent.


Washington was the first state to pass legislation for paid family leave not administered through disability insurance; however, due to lack of funding, the law has yet to take effect. The law would provide 5 weeks of paid leave to parents.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island uses a temporary disability insurance fund to provide up to 4 weeks of paid leave at up to 60%, with a cap, of a worker’s weekly earnings.

New York

In March 2016, New York became the fifth state to mandate paid family leave. It’s strong. It’s comprehensive. It can leap tall buildings in a single bound (which is good, because New York has many tall buildings).

Like the other funded states, New York will use a temporary disability insurance fund that will slowly roll out between January 1, 2018 and 2021. Once fully up and running, it will provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave at up to 2/3, with a cap, of a worker’s weekly earnings. Workers will contribute about $1 a week through a paycheck deduction.


On the national level, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act) was introduced and sponsored in Congress by Rosa DeLauro (D – Conn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D – N.Y.).

The FAMILY Act would create a new Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave within the Social Security Administration to provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave at 2/3, up to a cap, of a worker’s monthly earnings. It would be funded by small employee and employer contributions, about $1.50 per week for a typical worker.

The FAMILY Act was referred to committee in both the Senate and House. Groups are lobbying tirelessly on the Hill to garner support for the Act, but as of writing, the bill has not moved beyond those committees.


FMLA was meant to be a launching point, not a stopping point, for equal opportunity employment and a more integrated work and family life.

It was a significant and valuable policy, but without refinement, it’s lost its luster. It’s time to update our policies to reflect our values, and step into the 21st century as a truly forward-thinking, mindful, and industrious nation.

Help make the change. Like us and join in the discussion on our Facebook page. Reach out to your representatives about the Family Act. And access our guide on advocating for paid family medical leave on the state level at

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