WASHINGTON, DC – This week -- February 5, 2023 -- marks the 30th anniversary of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides unpaid leave to millions of workers for family caregiving or medical leave.

The legislation, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, was the first and only national law allowing millions of Americans to take time off of work without the threat of losing their jobs.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires unpaid leave for employers with 50 or more workers.  Under the law, eligible employees are able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave each year for a serious health condition, or to care for a family member with a serious health condition.  It can also be used for maternity leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child.

However, since the FMLA only guarantees unpaid leave, it’s inaccessible to millions of low wage earners who can’t afford to lose their paychecks for any period of time, even if they are sick.  Today, only 24 percent of private sector workers have paid family leave through their jobs, leaving more than 88 million workers without paid leave to care for a new child, aging parent, or sick family member.

U.S. Senator Jack Reed says now is the time for Congress to update and strengthen FMLA by passing a new law that supports workers left out of FMLA and provides paid family and medical leave.

Senator Reed joined several colleagues in championing the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would create a universal, paid family and medical leave program, funding up to 66 percent of wage replacement for 12 weeks of leave. It would be paid for by establishing a small 0.2% payroll tax, shared by employers and workers, which would amount to a few dollars out of the typical weekly paycheck.

The FAMILY Act would build on a significant victory Senator Reed, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, helped achieve in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). That law, which was enacted in 2019, provided up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave for 2.1 million federal civilian workers to take care of a new child, after a birth, adoption, or foster placement.

“Paid parental and sick leave offers economic, social, and public health benefits. It improves health outcomes for individuals and it helps people remain connected to their jobs. Very few people can afford to take extended time off from work without a paycheck. Yet we know how critical it is for children’s development to have a parent care for a newborn, or for someone with a serious health condition like cancer to have a family member help care for them. Instead of relying on a patchwork of policies, the FAMILY Act would ensure every American worker has the peace of mind of knowing  that they would have paid leave and the increased financial security when they need it,” said Senator Reed. “I helped include the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act in the NDAA to ensure the federal government was setting a good example, to enhance economic security for millions of families, and because there are important benefits for taxpayers, including improved worker retention and productivity. We demonstrated it could be done on a large scale and the next step is enacting the FAMILY Act to ensure all workers and businesses can benefit from family and medical leave social insurance programs.”

Eleven states, including Rhode Island, have passed laws offering some form of paid family and medical leave. The other states include: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.

Rhode Island has long been a leader on this issue, dating back to the 1950s when the Ocean State enacted one of the nation’s first Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) programs, which allowed individuals to take time to care for themselves when a doctor found them temporarily unable to work full time. Rhode Island updated its caregiving leave law in 2014. Rhode Island program, known as Temporary Caregiver Insurance (TCI), allows individuals to take up to 6 weeks of partially paid time off to care for a seriously ill family member or new child. It is funded through employee payroll deductions and relies on the same pool of money that covers temporary disability insurance program. And in 2018, the state added paid sick leave protections for workers.

According to the Center for American Progress: As Congress fails to act, workers and their families also lose an estimated combined $22.5 billion in wages each year due to a lack of paid family and medical leave.

“For too long, caregiving has been viewed as a private issue, shouldered mainly by women, rather than as an economic and moral imperative.  People should not have their opportunities for career advancement jeopardized because they want to start a family or if their spouse or parent is hospitalized. We need to have a culture that values hard work while also prioritizing people’s ability to have a family, care for a newborn, or deal with serious medical issues.  A strong, standardized paid family medical leave policy would help more Americans balance their career, family, and health in a way that benefits people, businesses, communities, and the country,” said Senator Reed.  “The FAMILY Act would build on and modernize the FMLA and provide all Americans with added job security and health benefits.”