Twenty-five years ago, the United States passed the landmark Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the first federal law guaranteeing the right to workplace leave when a serious health need hits or a new child arrives. Millions of workers have taken advantage of the FMLA to bond with a new child, deal with a serious health need, or care for an ailing loved one, and millions more continue to rely on the FMLA today to take the leave they need without losing their jobs.
But the FMLA doesn’t cover everyone. To qualify, an employee must work for an employer with at least 50 employees within 75 miles of their worksite. This means that the nearly 53 million American workers who work for businesses with fewer than 50 employees are excluded from coverage. And vulnerable workers are more likely to fall through the cracks. For example, employers in the construction and food services industries, which employ many low-income and undocumented workers, are especially likely to have fewer than 50 employees.
Employees who do work for businesses with 50 or more employees must meet two additional requirements in order to qualify for the FMLA: they must have worked for their employer for at least 12 months and have worked for that employer at least 1,250 hours in the last 12 months (about 24 hours per week). For low-income workers, who are more likely to work part time and to change jobs more frequently than other workers, these requirements make it especially difficult to qualify. The hours requirement alone excludes many part-time workers, a group that is disproportionately women, including those who work full-time hours across multiple employers or would prefer to work more hours for a single employer.
Luckily, states are stepping up to fill these gaps by providing job-protected leave to many workers left out of the FMLA. Some states have extended leave to employees of small businesses with less than 50 employees. Other states have reduced the duration and hours worked requirements in their state leave laws, while still others have done away with these requirements completely. You can find out more about these and other important protections here.
The events that shape our lives—new children, illness and injury, deployment—do not defer to our employers’ head counts or wait for us to meet arbitrary cut points. Neither should our leave laws.
This is the first in a series of blog posts drawing on our report, A Foundation and a Blueprint, published on the 25th anniversary of the FMLA’s passage. This series will focus on how states and cities are building on the FMLA to better protect workers.