Celebrating 24 Years of the Family and Medical Leave Act

This week, The Arc celebrates the 24th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This landmark law ensures that millions of workers don’t have to choose between their job and their own health or the health of a family member. Here are three things that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families need to know about the FMLA:

  1. The FMLA offers much-needed leave for workers (including workers with disabilities) and family caregivers. Qualified workers at companies with 50 or more employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid family or medical leave each year. The FMLA specifies allowable uses, notably for a worker to address their own serious health condition, to care for a new baby, and to care for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition.
  2. The FMLA protects against job loss. When a worker returns from FMLA leave, the employer must restore the worker to his or her previous job, or an equivalent job with the same pay and benefits.
  3. The FMLA ensures continued access to health insurance. If a worker has employer-sponsored group health insurance, the employer must continue to cover the worker under the same terms and conditions as if the worker had not taken FMLA leave. If the worker’s health insurance covers a family member, that coverage must also continue.

Family and medical leave has always enjoyed widespread public support – but the FMLA was a hard-won victory. Congress considered bills every year for 8 years before finally approving the FMLA on a bipartisan basis. Getting the FMLA across the finish line was testimony to the power of coalition. Organizations representing women, families, workers, seniors, people of faith, businesses, health professionals, and people with disabilities worked closely together to secure the FMLA.

The voices and views of people with disabilities and their families have always been a core part of that advocacy. In the 1980s and 1990s, groups like The Arc were deeply engaged in coalitions working to enact the FMLA, and people with disabilities and family caregivers shared many compelling stories in Congressional hearings and in the media. More recently, thanks to disability community advocacy, in 2015 the Department of Labor clarified that workers can use FMLA leave to care for a sibling with a serious health condition.

The FMLA was an important first step. But more work remains.

Today, about 40 percent of American workers aren’t covered under the FMLA, and many can’t afford to take unpaid leave. Only 14% of workers have paid family leave to care for a new child or seriously ill loved one. And gaps still exist in how you can use FMLA leave, such as being able to use leave to attend a child’s IEP meeting.

That’s why, as The Arc’s Robin Shaffert recently highlighted, we are joining the call for a robust federal paid family and medical leave program that adheres to a core set of principles. All employees must be able to access paid leave of meaningful length and for the full range of needs established in the FMLA. Families come in many shapes and sizes, so “family” must be inclusively defined. Paid leave must be affordable and cost-effective for workers, employers, and the government. And we must ensure that people who take paid leave do not experience adverse employment consequences as a result.

As President Clinton stated when he signed the FMLA into law on February 5, 1993, “Family and medical leave is a matter of pure common sense and a matter of common decency.” We couldn’t agree more. On the FMLA’s 24th anniversary, we celebrate its success and renew our commitment to a robust and inclusive federal paid family and medical leave program.

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