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The Family and Medical Leave Act Remains Vital for Older Workers

The law, passed 25 years ago, helps workers — but more is needed

FMLA Medical leave act form

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Numbers show only 1 in 7 workers in the private sector has employer-provided paid family leave.

The federal law that guarantees family and medical leave to most workers turns 25 this week. Hailed as a breakthrough and used by about 20 million people a year, the measure helps workers to balance their family responsibilities with their obligations at work.   

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Feb. 5, 1993, provides workers with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to recover from an illness or to care for a newborn; an adopted child or foster care child; or a spouse, child or parent who is seriously ill.

Fifty-five percent of those who took leave through the FMLA used it for their own medical condition, 21 percent used it for the birth or adoption of a child, and 18 percent used it to care of an ill family member, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. But the FMLA only covers businesses with 50 or more employees, making about 40 percent of U.S. workers ineligible.

Only 1 in 7 workers in the private sector has employer-provided paid family leave, according to the Labor Department. Among caregivers who left the workforce, just over half say they quit their jobs because they did not have the flexibility to keep working and provide elder care.

“AARP fought for the FMLA because its protections are so important to older Americans and their families,” says Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president for social impact at AARP. “Whether giving or receiving care, older workers are likely to need the time, access to health benefits, and job security that FMLA provides, and countless Americans have relied on it in difficult circumstances over the last 25 years.

“While FMLA was a very good step, we still have a lot of work to do to enable workers to take care of themselves and their loved ones,” LeaMond adds. “Expanding the FMLA is one way to provide these protections to more workers and the broader range of family members who are taking on caregiving responsibilities. AARP will continue to look for more innovative solutions that answer the challenges posed by the changing nature of work.”

One option that has received increased attention is paid family leave. The absence of paid leave in the FMLA has led a number of state and local governments to step in to fill some of the gap. California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington state and Washington, D.C., require some paid family leave. Some paid sick leave is mandated in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont and Washington state, and as of 2018, in Maryland and Rhode Island. A number of cities — including Chicago, New York and Philadelphia — also have a sick leave requirement.