The Family and Medical Leave Act turns 21 – Coming of age means it’s time to make leave more accessible and affordable

By Linda Meric

Pictured: 9to5 Colorado member Shelby Ramirez and her daughter Vanessa

February 5 marks the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  At the time, FMLA was a groundbreaking law, a great first step toward ensuring that we can all succeed at being both breadwinners and caregivers.  But FMLA still has a long way to go to expand the definition of family and to make leave affordable. 9to5 Colorado has been active on both fronts.

Last year, 9to5 Colorado activists led a state campaign to expand the family members that FMLA-eligible workers can take leave to care for. With the support of a broad and diverse coalition – women’s groups, unions, community organizations, faith and business leaders – the Family Care Act was passed in the State House and Senate with bi-partisan support and signed into law by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. The new law permits workers who are eligible for FMLA to take time to provide care for a domestic partner or partner in a civil union. This was an important step and one of several needed to expand accessibility to FMLA so that no one has to risk their job to care for themselves or a seriously ill family member.

And it’s why, this year, 9to5 Colorado and coalition partners are working to educate the public and state policy-makers about the need for paid leave.

Shelby Ramirez, a 9to5 activist in Denver, has experienced the positive side of being eligible for and able to use FMLA.  She’s also seen the challenges of unpaid leave.

Shelby works as a hotel security guard.  She is the mother of two daughters and a grandmother of two.  Like many people, Shelby also cares for an elderly parent.  “As a woman working a low wage job, it can be a struggle to make it paycheck to paycheck,” Shelby says.  When her younger daughter needed surgery at the same time her parent needed immediate medical attention, Shelby was able to take time to care for them, thanks to FMLA.  The challenge?  The time was unpaid.  “Having to take time off unpaid was an enormous financial burden for me,” said Shelby.  “After not paying rent and utilities, it took me four months to only partly get caught up with bills.”

FMLA was meant as a first step in helping workers handle the dual responsibilities of work and family.  Now, as we celebrate its 21st anniversary, it’s time to take that next step.  As Shelby says, “Although FMLA is great and I was able to keep my job, having paid family and medical leave is necessary now and for the future for our families.”

President Obama, in his State of the Union address, also voiced support for new policies that allow workers to care for their families when needed without losing a job or a paycheck. “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode,” stated the President.

Working women and families nationwide need access to paid family and medical leave insurance – a reflection of the realities faced by today’s workers, families and the economy.  Paid leave would benefit all workers, but especially working women because they make up more than half of the workforce and represent 59 to 75 percent of family or informal caregivers.

The benefits of paid leave are vast, including lower unemployment rates and greater job security, financial independence, economic growth, and savings to businesses by reducing worker replacement costs.  Family and medical leave insurance has been passed in California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington, and is being considered by lawmakers in a number of other states.  In California, where it has been in effect longest, between 89 and 99 percent of employers report that the program has had either a positive or no noticeable effect on turnover, productivity, profitability and morale.

Paid leave will allow women and families to maintain basic spending at a time they need it the most – contributing to stability of families, communities and a growing economy.  It’s a simple common sense solution that hardworking Coloradans want.  And it’s the perfect prescription that will keep working women and families, local businesses and the economy vital and healthy.  That’s why Shelby and other 9to5 Colorado members are speaking out, sharing their stories, and taking action to educate policy-makers and the public about the importance of family and medical leave insurance in the states.

This is part of the Family Values at Work blog carnival on the FMLA anniversary—click here to read more posts from the collection!


Linda Meric is the National Executive Director of 9to5, a membership organization founded in 1973 to strengthen the ability of women in low-wage jobs to win economic justice through grassroots organizing and policy advocacy on workplace and safety net issues. She is based out of the 9to5 Colorado office.  

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