Why FMLA Isn't Enough For American Families

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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In 2008, I had my first child. Back then, I had a career that required me to leave the house every day, showered and dressed in real pants. My husband was a full-time graduate student, which meant not only did we both rely on my income and health insurance, but so did our new baby boy.

I was a high school English teacher in a public school district. I helped choose the long-term substitute our district hired to teach Hamlet and correct run-on sentences while I was gone. I took adequate time off to recover and bond with my baby, and I had a guaranteed job to come back to after my maternity leave.

I can attribute my job security and ability to take medical leave to FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), which was passed in 1993. FMLA guarantees most American workers (some small companies are exempt) 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a medical event like maternity leave, caring for an ill child or parent, or personal medical issue. Prior to the passing of this legislation, women like me could be terminated for taking maternity leave, leaving them unable to support their families. Now, they know they can return to work once they are able to do so.

I took even more—the full 20 weeks my employer allowed. And while I was grateful for those four months that allowed me time to heal and learn how to be a mom to a new tiny human, 14 of those 20 weeks were unpaid. And the six weeks that were paid? Those were only granted to me by draining my sick days and borrowing from the “bank” of sick days that the rest of my fellow colleagues had donated to.

That’s how medical leave works for so many in this country—only a short amount of paid leave that’s often piecemealed together, or unpaid leave, or no leave at all. Despite taking the 14 weeks unpaid that I was legally allowed to take and maintain my job status, I actually had it pretty good in comparison to so many others. So many working mothers are given zero weeks of paid leave and, as a result, are forced to return to work before they and their child are ready so that they can receive a paycheck.

Thankfully, my husband and I had time to prepare for this exact scenario before our son was born. We’d had a few years to build up our savings and my husband found part-time jobs to fit around his full-time class load. But what about those who don’t have a back-up income source? Or whose child is suddenly diagnosed with a medical condition? Or who has a baby in the NICU for months? Or whose parent falls ill and needs emergency care? Or who faces unexpected complications with their pregnancy and is forced to go on bedrest?

What do they do in these situations? How do they stay afloat with no income?

The truth is, our modernized powerhouse of a nation is drastically behind the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to maternity, family, and medical leave policies. And we are doing a disservice to America’s workers by denying them the time and ability to care for their children or other family members and themselves.

“The richest country in the world stands alongside only Papua New Guinea in having zero weeks of paid leave,” a Slate article boldly reports. How is this possible? How does a nation that likes to brag about being the best country in the world able to maintain such archaic and inhumane policies?

Well, Ellen Bravo, author of the Slate article Twenty-Five Years After the Passage of Family and Medical Leave Act, Better Policies are on the Horizon, says an increasing number of states have passed better, fairer, more effective policies in recent years. So it looks like changes are a’comin, folks. Changes that are long overdue. Changes that are better for American workers and that will improve our nation’s productivity. And changes that are, frankly, really quite simple.

The basic idea is an insurance plan that grants workers 12 weeks of paid leave (because hello, the bills don’t stop coming even if you can’t go to work) for reasons like maternity and paternity leave, caring for an ill partner, parent, child, or personal medical reason.

How does it work? Bravo tells Scary Mommy that everyone contributes a small amount of their wages (1/2 of 1 percent on average) to an insurance fund. Then, it’s there if you need to draw from it—up to 12 weeks. Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, California, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico already have a plan like this, Bravo says. And hopefully the rest of the country will catch up.

A disability insurance plan that allows American employees to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave “keeps people attached to the work force,” Bravo tells Scary Mommy. “It allows for proper healing, it’s easy, not a burden, and it really works.”

So why have only a few states adopted a plan like this? Why isn’t the nation as a whole on board? Bravo attributes our country’s lack of progress to a variety of reasons.

“After WWI and WWII, many European countries [unlike the U.S.] were decimated and had to work hard to repopulate,” she explains to Scary Mommy. “This sparked better maternity leave policies in those countries.”

Another reason is America’s tendency to hold onto old-fashioned gender roles that assume women belong at home, caring for the family, which deem maternity leave unnecessary. This mindset is problematic as it denies women who are also mothers the ability or right to be career-focused. And, Bravo adds, it “ignores the fact that many families don’t look like that.” Many families have dads as the primary caretaker, and they should be allowed to take paid leave if they need to, just like moms. Or what about single moms who are the sole providers? They need adequate medical leave to care for their families.

But more than anything, Bravo attributes the U.S.’s lagging in this area to our country’s focus and obsession on dollar signs. “Big corporations resist anything that seems to be against making money,” she says. But, in actuality, protecting our workers means they are more likely to be ready and able to return to work, which is better for the overall economy.

Ellen Bravo breaks down American companies into four basic categories with regards to insurance policies that offer paid leave. “Some companies have a great policy and encourage people to take it without penalty,” she says. “But these are, unfortunately, the small minority in America.” The second batch are the companies who have a “great plan on paper,” but if you take the paid leave they offer, you’re penalized as it’s actually “frowned upon.” This applies to many companies who tout themselves as “family-friendly,” but when a new dad takes paternity leave, he’ll see his career suffer for it.

The last two groups, Bravo says, don’t offer a plan like this. One group basically doesn’t give a shit because it doesn’t fit with their financial bottomline. The other—usually smaller companies—truly can’t afford it. But that’s where a national plan can help.

If, just like social security, or federal taxes, all Americans paid a very small percentage into the pool, even employees of small companies could take paid medical leave, and return to their jobs fully healthy and ready to work.

The point is this…America needs to protect and take care of its workforce, or other nations are going to pass us by. Other nations who don’t expect their employees to work themselves to death. Other nations who allow mothers to heal and babies and the elderly to be healthy and receive proper care. And until we get our asses in gear and catch up to nations like Sweden, who offers up to 16 weeks paid leave, or Australia, who offers 12, our country will continue to suffer for it.

Ask yourself this: Can you afford to take several months of unpaid leave, if necessary? I’ll bet most Americans would say no, they can’t.

Denying proper medical leave isn’t actually the smartest economical decision, America. Hopefully we’ll realize that soon, as our workforce and their families are suffering.

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