Cheers and whoops greeted President Clinton as he made ready to sign the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in the White House Rose Garden on February 5, 1993. I was fortunate enough to be one of the exuberant on-lookers that day 20 years ago and believe me formal applause just wouldn’t do on that special day. This very first bill signing for President Clinton was the culmination of nine long years of hard work on the part of a diverse, national coalition led by what was then the Women’s Legal Defense Fund (now National Partnership for Women and Families).
Mixed into the crowd with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, senators and representatives, and administration officials were those of us who made the day possible – leaders from organizations like NCJW that educated and mobilized their constituents to speak out for a new labor standard that took into account the needs of working families.
I began working on this issue in 1984, shortly after I came to work in NCJW’s Washington office. At around the same time, NCJW (through its Center for the Child) was involved in a landmark nationwide research project called “Mothers in the Workplace” that surveyed working women and employers to learn what policies were in place to protect jobs for mothers out of the office due to a new baby. The results of this survey were shared at congressional hearings in DC and elsewhere, making the case that there was a real need for a uniform federal labor standard addressing this issue. And NCJW took the lead as co-chair with the Association of Junior Leagues of the lobby effort in the House of Representatives.
The first iteration of the FMLA dealt with “parental leave” but soon the bill was expanded to take into account the need for job-protected leave for a personal or family member’s medical issue. On one hand, the bill expanded to cover more family circumstances. On the other hand, the number of weeks of leave allowed and the number of people who were covered based on the size of a workplace diminished – a fairly typical “good news, bad news” scenario that often accompanies compromises made over the years to get a bill enacted.
Now, 20 years later, we’ve seen that all the dire predictions that FMLA opponents had never came true. In fact, employers who offer FMLA have learned that it contributes to retaining experienced, valued employees. But we’ve also seen that many employees can’t afford to take advantage of unpaid family leave, leaving all too many families with few options when it comes to balancing work and family.
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, it’s time to reexamine our national leave policy. It’s time to include domestic and same-sex partners as family under the law, and it’s time to provide paid sick leave to those workers who don’t have one single day of paid sick days. And when those changes are made, NCJW will once again let out a hearty “whoop and cheer,” knowing that once again we helped working families in our country.