Skip to main content

Extend family leave to all workers

By Janet Walsh, Special to CNN
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT