Work, Life Balance: 20 years of the Family and Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) is meant to alleviate some of the “work, life” problems that arise every day in families across the country. FMLA is a federal law that requires employers to provide employees leave for qualified medical and family reasons, without risk to the employees job. The law sought to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families.

The hope for such leave did not begin in 1993. A version of the FMLA was introduced into Congress every year between 1984 and 1993. Finally, on February 5, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the current Family and Medical Leave Act into law. FMLA guarantees eligible employees at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave for childbirth, adoption, childcare, and to attend to other personal or family health problems. Today, employers are covered by FMLA if they have 50 or more employees working for at least 20 weeks in a year period. Employees are eligible for FMLA leave if they have worked for at least 12 months, during which have worked at least 1,250 hours, for the employer. FMLA leave is available for:

  • Birth and care of the employee’s child;
  • Placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care;
  • Care of an immediate family member, such as a spouse, parent or child, with a serious health condition; and
  • Exigencies arising out of an immediate family member’s active military duty or call to active duty.

Since its implementation, FMLA leave has been used more than 100 million times by an estimated 35 million men and women. In celebration of the 20th anniversary, advocates highlight stories where the FMLA has helped working families care for their loved ones.

While the 20th anniversary has been a time to highlight the many successes of the FMLA, it has also become a platform for the next frontier of legislation. Several million workers a year who are eligible for FMLA leave choose not to take it for financial reasons. Many working families cannot afford to go without a paycheck. In response to this, advocates are gearing up for the next step: paid leave. California is the first state to take this step, enacting paid family leave with access to benefits in July of 2004. New Jersey followed suit in 2008 and Washington State in 2006. Similarly, 26 other states have introduced paid family leave bills and there are efforts to introduce federal paid family leave legislation.

On the 20th anniversary of the FMLA, we pay homage to the first and only federal law that helps families all over the country manage their work, life balance and keep an eye on the future of family leave.

To learn more about the FMLA, read the text. To learn more about federal paid family leave efforts, see the National Partnership for Women & Families, Working Mother, and A Better Balance.