Strengthen Family and Medical Leave Act by allowing Americans paid time off work

It wasn’t so long ago that trying to get time off could get you fired.

That’s what I learned from Eva Bunnell when I met her at church in East Haddam, Conn., in 1989. Eva’s daughter Jacinta had been born with a rare brain disease and was fighting for her life in the ICU. Her husband asked his employer for time off to be at the side of his wife and baby. And he was told to never come back — leaving the family without an income, without health insurance, and almost without hope.

Fortunately, doctors were able to save Eva’s daughter. But the sad truth is that, before the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), stories like Eva’s were a fact of American working life. New mothers would return to work after the birth of their child to find that they had been replaced; a husband could face demotion if he stayed home to care for his ailing wife.

This Feb. 5 is the FMLA’s 15th anniversary. And it’s worth looking back at its history — not to pat ourselves on the back, but to remind ourselves of how much remains to be done.

Soon after I was elected to the Senate in the early 1980s, I began working to reform a system that forced Americans to choose between caring for their families and providing for them. I authored the FMLA in 1985, and I fought for its passage through eight years of obstruction and two presidential vetoes. Stories like Eva’s only made me work harder.

It never ceases to amaze me that such a common-sense notion as family leave sparked such fierce criticism. The idea was hardly on paper before the special interests were out in full force, declaring guaranteed leave a big-government intrusion that would cost businesses millions of dollars in lost time.

Through five Congresses and two presidents, I rebutted that criticism as best I could. I cited studies showing that guaranteed leave would cost employers just pennies per worker per day. And I showed that, in denying such a basic protection, America was virtually alone among nations, industrialized or otherwise.

Finally, on Feb. 5, 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act was signed into law — the first bill President Clinton signed.

Under its protection, eligible workers receive 12 weeks of leave every year, so that they can watch over a newborn or adopted baby, or help a parent through an illness, or get better themselves, knowing that their job will be there for them when they return. To date, more than 50 million Americans have taken that opportunity.

The dire predictions of the FMLA bringing about economic disaster turned out to be totally unfounded: With lower turnover and a boost to morale, 90 percent of employers told the Department of Labor that the FMLA had a neutral or positive effect on profits.

The benefits to children and families have been just as marked. When parents can be there for their sick children, they recover faster, avoid more serious illness, and stay healthier. Family leave makes it more likely that children will be immunized, encourages mothers to breastfeed longer, and means more time for parent-child interaction.

Today, the idea of guaranteed leave seems obvious, but now, we face a new and equal challenge: making that hard-won leave a possibility for all Americans. In the 21st century, working families should not have to give up the leave they earned because they cannot afford it — they deserve paid leave.

Why do we offer nothing, when the European standard is 10 paid months? Why are we one of only four countries in the world to deny paid maternity leave, leaving us in the august company of Swaziland, Lesotho, and Papua New Guinea?

For every worker who can weather a day without pay, three more can’t afford the loss. To these workers, unpaid leave offers only an impossible choice between the family they love and the job they need. With more and more families living on two incomes, with more and more baby boomers caring for their aging parents, we need strong FMLA more than ever.

It’s time to bring paid leave to Americans — at least eight weeks of it. Last session, I introduced a bipartisan bill to secure it.

I’ve also worked to expand coverage to more families. There’s nothing harder than balancing a career and a family’s needs, and doing an admirable job at both; if we in Washington can help to ease the burden, I believe we ought to try.

As you can imagine, we’ll likely have another long fight on our hands. We can remember, though, what history has shown us: A good idea is worth it. Today’s consensus took years to build, and tomorrow’s won’t be any easier. But let’s begin.

Dodd is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.