It’s been 24 years since Congress enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), recognizing that workers should not have to choose between the job they need and the family members they love. Two decades later, millions of Americans have benefitted from FMLA’s guarantees. From parental leave for childbirth and adoption to medical leave for workers, the law protects many of us during some of life’s most significant events — and our families and workplaces are stronger for it.
At the same time, we must now recognize that these codified protections are not enough. Because FMLA leave is unpaid and only applies to some workers, many others are still forced to make the difficult decision between being there for loved ones or returning to work out of financial necessity.
Sixteen years ago, I became especially aware of this reality as a new mother to my son, Coleman. Then living paycheck to paycheck on an organizer’s salary, I was extremely fortunate to receive three months of paid parental leave after Coleman joined our family. Looking back, I cherish those 12 weeks not just because of the time spent with my newborn son, but especially since I would have been unable to take the time off — amounting to a quarter of my annual income — without the support of paid leave.
Unfortunately, the decision to return to work is even harder on families undergoing unexpected and even more trying circumstances. In 2017, too many Americans are forced to take on debt or fundraise for donations just to cover the bills as they or a loved one fight cancer, recover from an accident, or battle serious illness, simply due to the unpaid time away from work.
LGBTQ people are especially impacted by the lack of paid leave protections, in large part due to the wide diversity of our families. For instance, while some forward-thinking employers now provide paid maternity leave for expectant mothers, these benefits do not always extend equally to fathers or non-biological parents. Whether led by two dads, two moms, stepparents or other relatives, all families deserve the chance to care for one another — a point I am especially aware of as the gay mom of an adopted son. Uniform and inclusive protections for paid leave can ensure that all parents have the opportunity to bond with their children and be there for them should they have to undergo serious medical treatment.
Similarly, we can also do better to stand with LGBTQ individuals with healthcare needs that disproportionately impact our community. Paid leave can be a vital need for transgender people undergoing surgery and for individuals receiving treatment for HIV & AIDS-related medical conditions; it can also allow other family members or caretakers to more easily support them during recovery. Inclusive policies can also improve quality of life for LGBTQ elders, who often rely on the care of non-related friends or neighbors. And finally, paid leave can even aid survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, both of which disproportionately impact LGBTQ individuals, by providing more time for physical and mental recovery before they return to work.
During my tenure at the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, the agency overseeing FMLA enforcement, I was proud to be part of the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure the law’s protections are fully inclusive of LGBTQ families. But in 2017, when the U.S. remains the only developed country not to guarantee paid leave, we can do much better to support our co-workers, friends and loved ones.
No one should ever have to decide between their family and their job — and nor should they feel worried about making ends meet during some of life’s most challenging situations. As I look back at the positive impact of the FMLA on the lives of millions of Americans, I also look forward to a time when we can celebrate the enactment of paid leave for all. It’ll be a time when families like yours and mine can feel safer, healthier and happier — both at home and at work.
Mary Beth Maxwell is HRC’s senior vice president for Programs, Research and Training.