There’s still work to do on FMLA

by Andrea Vaughn

Twenty-one years ago, a worker could be fired, demoted, or otherwise disciplined for taking unpaid time off work to recover from the birth of a child, to care for a seriously ill loved one, or to recover from an illness. Thanks to nine years of efforts by policymakers and activists, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has protected over 35 million workers since 1993, ensuring they were able to keep their jobs and health insurance while they weathered a health crisis or cared for a new baby.

Employers also benefit: workers who are able to take time away when they need it are more likely to return to their jobs. As a result, employers save between 17 and 31 percent of employees’ annual earnings when they don’t have to replace experienced workers. Employers also benefit from higher worker productivity and morale. By all accounts, the last 21 years of the FMLA represent incredible progress for workers.

But we still have work to do. Because the FMLA covers only employers with 50 or more employees, two-fifths of the U.S. workforce and four-fifths of new mothers do not have access to its protections. People of color and young adults are less likely to work for a covered employer than their white or older counterparts. Only same-sex couples who are legally married and living in states with marriage equality laws can use the FMLA to care for their spouse. And for too many families, unpaid leave is simply not an option. Compared to the year 2000, two and half times as many people need leave but are not taking it, mostly because they cannot afford it. Of those who do take FMLA leave, nearly one in ten have to go on public assistance to support themselves and their families. This is unacceptable.

What’s more, the FMLA doesn’t cover routine illness or preventive doctor visits. If covered by FMLA, you can take unpaid time for chemo, but can be fired or docked pay for getting a mammogram that had to be scheduled during working hours.

That’s why in Maryland, the Working Matters Coalition, a grassroots coalition of over 100 advocacy groups, businesses, and faith-based organizations, is working to advance paid sick days in our state. A staggering 700,000 private sector workers in Maryland – and about 80 percent of low-wage workers – do not earn sick time that they can use when they or a loved one needs care. Instead, they are forced to make impossible choices: lose pay and possibly their jobs, or work while ill. For low-income workers, the loss of even a few days’ pay can equal a month’s worth of groceries.

Raquel Rojas faced exactly this dilemma while working at the Cheesecake Factory in Baltimore. When she asked for time to recover from a severe case of bronchitis, her manager insisted that she work or risk losing her job. Faced with that threat to her family’s economic security, Raquel continued to work until her bronchitis developed into pneumonia, which ultimately put her in bed for two weeks. Once she recovered and returned to work, her hours were cut until she was not given any work at all. Raquel’s story all too common and it is time for a change.

To address the gaps in the FMLA, other state coalitions are also taking action. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have implemented family leave insurance programs, which allow workers to take paid leave to recover from long-term illnesses or the birth of a child. Coalitions in other states are laying the groundwork for similar laws. Many local coalitions are working to fill the gap for routine illness. One state and seven cities have already passed paid sick leave laws, and many more will follow. At the federal level, the FAMILY Act, introduced in Congress in 2013, would create a social insurance fund to allow people to receive a portion of their pay when they need time away from their jobs for family or medical reasons.

As the President said in his State of the Union address last week, parents deserve to have a baby without sacrificing their jobs; and we all deserve a day off to care for a sick child or parent without running into economic hardship. It’s time to take action for all of our nation’s workers to ensure they have access to much-needed leave and job protections.

Andrea Vaughn is an attorney at the Public Justice Center. PJC is a member of the Working Matters Coalition.

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