This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA – a law we worked tirelessly to pass as members of Congress. It wasn't easy, but we knew what was at stake for families and the country. So we came together with our colleagues from different states, districts and political parties to get it done.
The FMLA was critical because, at the time, the country was undergoing major demographic and workforce changes, but our public policies had fallen far behind. Families and our economy were suffering as a result. It was a time that called for action, and Congress delivered.
Fast forward 20 years to today and circumstances are much the same. Despite the tremendous success of the FMLA – workers have used the unpaid leave it provides more than 100 million times – families and the country are suffering without paid leave. It's time, once again, for Congress to come together and get it done.
Aside from expanding the FMLA for military families and making technical changes to ensure flight attendants can access FMLA leave, there has been no federal action to address recent changes in the nation's families and workplaces. Women are nearly half the workforce and the primary caregivers and breadwinners for their families. The population is rapidly aging and many more adults need care. Nearly half of middle-aged adults care for both parents and children.
Yet people across the country routinely have to choose between their jobs, on the one hand and their health and/or family caregiving responsibilities on the other because they do not have basic paid leave. Just 12 percent of workers have paid family leave through their employers, and fewer than 40 percent have paid medical leave through an employer-provided temporary disability insurance program.
It is time – past time – for Congress to once again come together to address the needs of families, businesses, our economy and our country. And members now have an ideal opportunity to do so by supporting the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would build upon the FMLA and advance the vision of a family friendly America it established.
The FAMILY Act was introduced last week by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D–Conn., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D–N.Y.. It would create a national paid family and medical leave insurance program that would ensure people have some income when they need time off to deal with a serious medical condition, including pregnancy or childbirth; to care for a newborn or newly adopted child; or to care for a family member who is seriously ill.
The bill is modeled on similar programs that have been working well in California and New Jersey for years. It is no surprise that there is already a sizeable coalition (more than 400 groups) pushing for its passage – convened by the National Partnership for Women & Families, the driving force behind the FMLA. A 2013 Small Business Majority poll shows that more small business owners support family leave insurance than oppose it. And a 2012 poll commissioned by the National Partnership shows that 86 percent of voters nationwide say it is important.
This Congress has an opportunity. It can act now to establish a common sense paid leave standard that will ensure people have the financial security and support they need to provide for their families and keep their jobs. In doing so, they would support businesses and strengthen the economy.
The FMLA demonstrated that lawmakers can come together to address the challenges facing workers, their families and the country. The FAMILY Act can and should continue its legacy. Congress should learn from our experience and come together and pass it.
Democrat Christopher Dodd represented Connecticut in the United States Senate for 30 years. Republican Constance A. Morella represented Maryland's 8th District in the United States House of Representatives for 16 years.