February 5 marks the 30 year anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides the right to job-protected, unpaid time off work to care for oneself, for a new child, or for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent to millions of Americans.
This law was a crucial step forward for working families and has helped millions access time off work to care for themselves and their loved ones. However, in the decades since this landmark law’s passage, it has become abundantly clear that our laws are leaving behind countless workers, who either do not qualify for the FMLA due to its stringent eligibility requirements or cannot take unpaid leave without sacrificing their economic security.
A lack of access to both paid leave and unpaid leave through the FMLA disproportionately impacts workers of color, those in low-wage jobs, and youth. For Opportunity Youth, who are more likely to be female and Black or Hispanic, these protections are especially vital – one-third have reported disability as the reason for not working or being in school and 26% indicated childrearing/home responsibilities as the reason.
We have seen heartening progress in passing paid family and medical leave programs at the state and local levels – many of which A Better Balance is proud to have played a leading role in driving forward – in the years since the FMLA’s passage, and the success of these programs only further emphasizes the importance of these supportive policies. In recognizing the victory of the FMLA’s 1993 passage, we must look to the road ahead as we continue to fight for the comprehensive federal paid family and medical leave program working families deserve. Below are stories from those who have experienced the need for paid leave firsthand and reached out to A Better Balance’s helpline, many of whom have gone on to become Community Advocates and share their experiences to call for change:
Nicole from Maryland was terminated from her retail job in December 2021 after being formally denied FMLA leave, since she had not yet been working there for a year. She had received punitive attendance points when she needed to be absent for medical reasons due to severe pre-menopausal bleeding, despite the fact that when she called out from work, she had always indicated when her absences were for medical issues and had informed her manager of the medical problems she was having.
Alexzandria, who had worked for a year-and-a-half as a studio manager and massage therapist at a small massage studio in Michigan, had to resign from her job due to a lack of access to job-protected maternity leave when she became pregnant in 2021. After she announced her plans to start a family, her boss handed her an agreement to sign indicating that if she were ever to take leave for more than one to two days at a time, her salary would be suspended. The company she worked for was too small to be subject to the FMLA. She was left extremely worried about her income while recovering from childbirth and bonding with her baby.
“The law requiring 12 months of employment to simply qualify for unpaid leave is unjust.”
Christina, a community health worker in Kansas, was terminated from her job at seven and a half months pregnant. In an attempt to figure out her options for maternity leave, she was denied FMLA leave as she had recently moved to a new town for her husband’s job and hadn’t been working there for a year. “My career has typically been the main source of income for my family, therefore this also threw us in financial disarray right before the arrival of our daughter, on top of an amount of stress that almost put me in early labor,” she told A Better Balance. “The law requiring 12 months of employment to simply qualify for unpaid leave is unjust.”
Cyndel, a mother of three, worked for a healthcare platform in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida when she gave birth to her youngest daughter, who was born premature and experienced episodes of breathing problems. In order to care for her daughter and seek treatment for her own postpartum conditions, she asked her employer if they could extend her maternity leave beyond the six and a half weeks they had granted. Her extension was denied and she was not covered by the FMLA, as she hadn’t worked for a full year. “I have no guaranteed job protection or preservation of my health benefits,” she told us. “I could have benefitted from FMLA to take leave to care for my own high-risk pregnancy and complications after the birth.”
Monica* worked as a nurse practitioner in Illinois started a new job for a medical group in 2022 as she entered the second trimester of her pregnancy. She requested 12 weeks of unpaid leave and was denied as she did not qualify for FMLA, since she had not worked in her current role for one year. Her estimated due date was one week shy of qualifying for the company’s paid maternity leave. “Starting a new role, being pregnant, and not knowing if I would receive adequate time off for delivery has caused me so much anxiety during my pregnancy, which has affected my job performance,” she told us. “How can I care for others as a nurse practitioner, when I’m not getting the care I need due to inadequate laws in America?”
“How can I care for others as a nurse practitioner, when I’m not getting the care I need due to inadequate laws in America?”
Samuel*, who worked as a driver for a trucking company in North Dakota, was pushed off his job when he needed to care for his elderly father, a Korean War veteran who had suffered a stroke. He told his employer that he needed to go home to say goodbye to his dad. “I knew that if he passed away while I was on the road, and not there with him, I would regret it for the rest of my life,” he told us. His company informed him that if he left his job to care for his father, he would be terminated. When he attempted to return to work, his employer refused to consider bringing him back. “Had I been eligible for 12 weeks of job-protected leave under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), this would have been enough time for me to provide the immediate care my father required from me and to make arrangements for his care moving forward,” he told us. “But I did not qualify for FMLA leave because I had not yet worked at my job for one year.”
As we mark the 30th Anniversary of the FMLA, we remain committed to prioritizing the lived experiences and expertise of those who most urgently need these supportive policies as we continue to fight for paid leave for all.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.