The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed into law in 1993 to protect the rights of workers who need to take time off for medical reasons. But currently almost half of Americans do not qualify for that leave and of those who do, most opt not to take it because they simply can’t afford it.
Ellen Bravo is the coordinator for the Multi-State Working Families Consortium, a group that lobbies for paid leave. She says that law was a good first step.
"It says you shouldn't be fired for having a child or family member who needs care. Essentially, it provides twelve weeks of unpaid leave for parents of a new child, whether by birth, adoption, or foster care, or a seriously ill child, spouse as defined by law, or elderly parent."
The law does not require employers to pay you during that time, but they do have to allow you to return to the same or equal position.
Bravo says, "You have to work for a company of fifty or more for at least a year, at least 25 hours each week, in order to be covered. Those things leave out half of the private sector workforce.
"The definition of family is vary narrow; as you can see it doesn't cover same-sex partners or siblings, grandparents, et cetera. While it is important that it covers serious illness, not all kids, fortunately get leukemia, but they do all get strep throat and ear infections and stomach flus, and that is not covered.
"And, of course, the leave is unpaid. There are approxiamtely 2.7 million workers each year who are eligible for family leave, but cannot take it because they can't afford it," says Bravo.
There are numerous challenges for workers trying to maintain their households when they or a family member get sick. Legal changes implemented last month by the outgoing Bush administration actually make those challenges even more difficult.
"If you have no leave, or if your leave isn't covered by the FMLA and is unpaid, what you have is people often end up on public assistance. I was on a commission that was appointed by Congress in 1995 to study the impact of the Family Medical Leave Act that had been passed two years earlier.
"One of the things we asked employees was 'How did you support yourself while you were on leave?' One in eight said, 'By going on public assistance.' When I asked them to crunch the numbers for family income for low income families, that number was one in five.
"So we have lots of people who end up on welfare because they have no family leave. I know of companies who tell you, 'Here is our family leave program,' and then give you the information to sign up for your state's welfare program. We can do a lot better than that," says Bravo.
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