Skip to main content

Extend family leave to all workers

By Janet Walsh, Special to CNN
updated 8:02 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Janet Walsh says the Family and Medical Leave act has brought great benefits, but has not kept pace with changing workforce
Janet Walsh says the Family and Medical Leave act has brought great benefits, but has not kept pace with changing workforce
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Family and Medical Leave Act let Janet Walsh keep job while taking time off to care for mom
  • Act is 20 years old this week, a boon, but hasn't kept up with changing workplace she says
  • She says about 50% workers eligible for Act. And many can't afford to take unpaid time off
  • Walsh: Family leave insurance, for paid leave, has been shown to increase productivity

Editor's note: Janet Walsh is deputy women's rights director at Human Rights Watch and the author of "Failing its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US." Follow her on Twitter: @JanetHRW.

(CNN) -- Two years ago, the signs were clear. My mother, with Alzheimer's, heart failure, and kidney failure, was not going to live long. My brothers and I took time off work for medical appointments and hospice care. I worried about her comfort, about how my dad would cope and how the grandkids would feel.

But I never had to worry about one thing: my job.

I knew I could take family leave without being fired. My workplace has generous leave policies. And thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) -- enacted 20 years ago this week -- I had a legal right to job-protected leave. The FMLA has been used more than 100 million times by women and men to care for parents, children and spouses with serious illnesses, to bond with new children and to manage their own serious health conditions.

But millions of other workers are not so lucky. The FMLA, which grants job protection for up to three months of leave, applies only to enterprises with 50 or more employees. Eligibility requirements exclude many workers. In other words, close to half of the American workforce has no FMLA protection.

Even among eligible workers, many cannot afford to take family or medical leave. This law guarantees only unpaid leave. Only about 12% of the work force has access to paid family leave through employers. As a result, many workers have to choose between a paycheck and their family's well being.

Beyond that, work-family policies have not kept up with the dramatic changes that the U.S. work force has experienced over the past few decades, particularly with regard to women. The labor force participation rate for mothers of young children stood at 70.6% in 2011, compared with 47% in 1975. Men, though still doing less family caregiving than women, are taking greater responsibility for it than before. The proportion of men caring for relatives with Alzheimer's or dementia, for example, doubled -- from 19% to 40% -- from 1996 to 2009.

As the FMLA turns 20, it is time to bring it up to date for today's work force. This includes expanding coverage and establishing family and medical leave insurance to make leave affordable.

Studies from other countries have found that paid family and medical leave programs boost productivity. One study of 19 developed countries found that paid parental leave had a significantly greater positive effect on productivity than unpaid leave. The study also said that instituting paid leave in countries (such as the U.S.) without it could increase productivity.

Cursing could cost you that promotion
Group tries to give hope to unemployed
Hidden germs in the workplace

Paid leave helps retain employees and avoid turnover costs. One study found that 94% of leave-takers who received full pay returned to the same employer, compared with 76% of those with no pay.

Paid family leave is associated with better health and lower health care costs. A 2010 study found that the United States could prevent nearly 900 infant deaths and save $13 billion per year if 90% of mothers breastfed exclusively for six months. But only 47% of U.S. babies are breastfed at all at 6 months, and only 16 percent exclusively. Paid family leave has been shown to dramatically increase breastfeeding, such as in California, where the introduction of paid family leave doubled the median duration of breastfeeding for new mothers who used it.

The bottom line is that paid family and medical leave pays off. It increases productivity, reduces turnover costs, and results in health care savings.

The only two states with family leave insurance programs -- California and New Jersey -- are showing positive outcomes, and proving that such insurance programs are affordable. The vast majority of California businesses included in a 2011 survey said that the program had a positive effect or no noticeable effect on productivity, profitability, turnover, and employee morale. Both New Jersey and California finance their programs exclusively through small payroll deductions for workers (with no employer contribution), and offer six weeks of partially paid leave. In New Jersey, workers pay .001% of the taxable wage base (maxing out at $30.90 for 2013), and can get up to $584 per week during leave.

The days before my mother's death were peaceful and positive. I had the privilege of being with my family for this graceful end, and peace of mind from knowing my job was secure. Enhancing U.S. law to give all workers this kind of security would benefit not just workers, but businesses and the economy as a whole.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed by this commentary are solely those of Janet Walsh

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT