MEDIA RELEASE: 20th Anniversary of Family and Medical Leave Act provides opportunity to examine gaps in legislation

RALEIGH (February 5, 2013) — Today marks the 20th anniversary of the historic Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), legislation that passed with strong bi-partisan support to guarantee Americans protected time to care for their loved ones. The anniversary offers an opportunity to celebrate how far we have come in 20 years, advocacy groups say, but also demands reflection on how far we have yet to go in support of working North Carolinians, particularly at a time when legislation threatens to punish unemployed workers.

FMLA offers 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave, which workers can use to care for a new baby, a sick family member, or to recover from an illness, according to a new fact sheet released today by NC Justice Center and NC Families Care, a coalition of individuals and organizations working to make North Carolina’s workplaces more family friendly. Since its implementation in 1993, FMLA has been used more than 100 million times by working men and women, helping a generation of children get a healthy start in life, a generation of seniors to age with greater peace of mind, and allowing many adults to care for their family without having to sacrifice their jobs. 

To be protected by FMLA, a worker must be employed by a company with 50 or more employees within 75 miles, work 1,250 hours per year, and be on the job for at least a year. FMLA excludes more than half of the workforce, including employees in smaller companies and many part-timers, and has a narrow definition of family that does not include grandparents, grandchildren, or siblings. In addition, several million workers a year who are eligible for FMLA and need leave don’t take it – mostly because they cannot afford to go without pay. 

"Only about one-fifth of all new mothers are covered by the FMLA," said Beth Messersmith, Campaign Director of NC MomsRising and Co-Coordinator of NC Families Care. “Even those who are covered can often not afford to take unpaid leave. Access to paid family leave to care for themselves or a family member should be a work place standard."

Some states have expanded or improved the Family and Medical Leave Act by lowering the employer threshold, expanding the definition of family beyond child, spouse and parent, increasing the allowable uses under the FMLA, and establishing family leave insurance programs. North Carolina lawmakers have taken steps toward filling the gaps by introducing the Caregiver Relief Act in 2011, legislation that will be reintroduced later this month. The Act would extend the protections of the FMLA to allow eligible employees to care for a sibling, grandparent, grandchild, stepparent, or parent-in-law.

"Considering that almost 1.2 million North Carolinians are family caregivers for older and disabled adults, this legislation would more accurately reflect the realities of North Carolina’s families,” said Sabine Schoenbach, Policy Analyst with the NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project and Co-Coordinator of NC Families Care. “At a time when North Carolina’s unemployment rate continues to hover above 9 percent, lawmakers should be focusing on job retention policies like increased access to family and medical leave instead of punishing the unemployed by slashing benefits.”

"The FMLA is a crucial piece of legislation that has been used an estimated 100 million times to provide job-protected, unpaid leave to women and men across the country to recover from a serious illness, care for a new child, or care for a seriously ill spouse, parent, or child,” said Messersmith. “It’s time to fill the gaps to ensure that all workers can fulfill their family responsibilities without falling out of the workforce."

Read the complete fact sheet here, in addition to the personal stories of working people in North Carolina and across the country who benefitted from FMLA, or suffered due to the lack of protection.

NC Families Care is part of Family Values @ Work, a network of 20 state coalitions working for paid sick days, family leave insurance and other policies that value families at work.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT: Sabine Schoenbach, sabine@ncjustice.org, 919.856.2234; Jeff Shaw, Director of Communications, jeff@ncjustice.org, 503.551.3615 (cell).
 

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