Celebrating 30 Years of the Family and Medical Leave Act

February 5th marks the 30th anniversary of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. This historic legislation has protected millions of workers across the country from losing their jobs during times of need, like when facing serious illness or welcoming a new child. Since its implementation, working people have used the FMLA more than 460 million times. In 2022 alone, the law saved more than 15 million workers from having to choose between caring for themselves and their families or maintaining their job. Yet the FMLA has not been enough on its own, leaving about 40% of the workforce out of its protections and disproportionately excluding low-paid workers and workers of color.  In addition, although the FMLA provides for job-protected leave, it does not provide for pay during that leave.

California has paved the way to build upon the foundation of the FMLA. Twenty years ago, recognizing that many workers can’t afford to take unpaid leave even when they are eligible for job protection, California became the first state to enact a paid family leave law. California’s Paid Family Leave program provides up to 70% wage replacement for up to eight weeks when an employee takes leave from work to care for a family member with a serious health condition or to bond with a new child. That means that millions of Californians have been able to receive crucial support when caring for their loved ones. Starting in 2025, lower and middle-income workers will be paid 90% of their regular income when they receive Paid Family Leave.

The California Family Rights Act, called CFRA, also expands upon the success of the FMLA by increasing access to job-protected leave. In contrast to the FMLA, which only applies to employers with at least 50 employees, CFRA now applies to employers with 5 or more employees. This improvement in the law, which took effect in 2021, also allowed for employees to take leave to care for a wider set of family members than the FMLA, including adult children, grandparents, grandchildren, and siblings. As of 2023, chosen family members are also included. These efforts reflect a recognition that needs to look different from family to family. More Californians than ever can now rest assured that they can take leave without worrying about losing their job.

Thirty years after passing the groundbreaking FMLA, it is time for the federal government to follow California’s example and make these same critical improvements, bringing more employees under the FMLA’s protections and offering pay during leave. No employee should have to decide between keeping their job and caring for their family. The FMLA should better reflect what working families look like and truly need.

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