What is the purpose of the FMLA?
What does the FMLA do?
Equity in the FMLA’s logic (what is logic?)
The Family and Medical Leave Act is designed to address employees’ need to balance their work duties with their own health needs or caretaking responsibilities for newborns and seriously ill family members. Research finds that parents’ ability to participate in their children’s healthcare leads to better child developmental outcomes, including faster recovery periods. Yet access to family and sick leave provided through employer policies is unequal. Low-skill, low-wage, racial/ethnic minority, female and immigrant workers are significantly more likely to have fewer employer-provided benefits, such as health insurance, and less time off. Some of these populations are also more vulnerable to health conditions, which means that they may be the most in need of, but the least likely to access worker benefits that can help address health issues.
The FMLA is federal legislation that increases access to medical and family leave from work by guaranteeing job protection for eligible employees. The FMLA seeks to promote gender equity in the workplace and in the home by providing job-protected leave for both men and women. Legislators envisioned that by encouraging both men and women to take family leave, the FMLA would reduce the incentive for employers to discriminate against female employees, who typically bear more family caregiving responsibilities. They also hoped that the opportunity to take job-protected leave would encourage men to participate more equally in parenting and caregiving responsibilities. Unfortunately, the unpaid nature of FMLA leave disproportionately hinders access to job-protected leave for low-wage workers. In this sense, the FMLA exacerbates existing inequities between already-vulnerable low-wage workers and other workers.
Back to top.
What is the FMLA?The FMLA is a federal labor standard passed in 1993 that establishes and upholds eligible workers’ rights to take unpaid, job-protected leave from work for select caregiving or medically-related reasons. Prior to the FMLA guarantee, a patchwork of state leave laws and employer leave policies existed across the United States. A 1996 Department of Labor (DOL) report to Congress found that few employers and states provided leave from work for all of the reasons covered by the FMLA or offered the same level of job protection and benefits continuation during leave. The report found that under state and employer leave policies before the FMLA, “the extent of leave available to employees prior to 1993 increased with firm size and for employees with higher levels of skill and income.” In addition, most employees had no access to maternity or paternity leave, and job protection for maternity, paternity and parental leave was uncommon. Policies allowing family leave to care for a seriously ill family member (such as a child, spouse or parent) were even rarer. The FMLA filled this gap by providing job-protected family (including parental) and medical leave to eligible employees across the nation. Importantly, the FMLA is not universal. About 60% of employees are eligible for FMLA leave; the remaining 40% are excluded due to FMLA criteria which do not cover employees who work for small businesses (fewer than 50 employees), who have worked for their employer for fewer than 12 months, or who worked less than 1,250 hours in the last year (see eligibility criteria for more information).
Back to top.
What is the purpose of the FMLA?The primary goals of the FMLA are to promote workers’ family leave-taking, employment stability and security, and work-family balance. The Act recognizes that parents’ ability to care for new children and sick family members is important for child development and family cohesiveness. Furthermore, employment policies that support parents’ caregiving roles are crucial given the increase in single parent households and two-parent households where both parents work. The Act recognizes that caregiving responsibilities are primarily born by women, but that labor standards applying to only one gender may lead to employment discrimination against that gender. Although not stated in the original legislative purpose of the FMLA, an additional consideration for improving access to medical/family leave is the aging of the U.S. population. The rising population of elderly people, for whom care is primarily provided by spouses and adult daughters, also requires flexible employment policies. A logic model of the FMLA visually presents the pathways through which labor standards and other factors are expected to influence family financial stability and child health outcomes.
FMLA logic also has several secondary goals, including increasing worker productivity and minimizing any employer-born costs or burdens stemming from its provisions.
Equity and Context:
FMLA legislation details several explicit equity goals. The Act is explicitly designed to minimize gender discrimination and promote equitable employment opportunities for men and women. It acknowledges that because of societal norms, caretaking responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, and so affect their working lives more than those of men. Prior to the passage of the FMLA, much of the effort around family leave policies focused on women. However, in 1984 federal district court ruling struck down a California maternity-leave law as sex discrimination against men. In response, many stakeholders came together to design a federal law that would not be considered discriminatory toward men. Thus, the FMLA arose from a push to reduce employment discrimination against women, but is explicitly gender neutral to withstand legal scrutiny. The gender neutrality of the FMLA equally promotes both men’s and women’s access to medical or family leave.
A second equity focus in the FMLA legislation involves health-vulnerable employees and families. The Act specifically acknowledges “inadequate” job security for employees with serious health issues. Workers’ employment stability is jeopardized if they are forced to risk losing their jobs due to their own serious health condition or to care for a newborn or a seriously ill family member. By guaranteeing job protected family or medical leave for eligible employees, the Act is designed to promote more equitable employment security for health-vulnerable workers and families. However, while the FMLA’s job protection may promote job stability, its unpaid nature may also put workers on leave in financially tight situations. Therefore, the Act is designed to address employment stability, but is less equipped to ensure financial stability for health-vulnerable families who cannot afford to take unpaid leave.
Interestingly, improved child and worker health are not actually listed as a primary or secondary goal in FMLA legislation. While it can be inferred that the FMLA goals of increased leave-taking and work-family balance for families with health needs are aimed at facilitating access to health services and improving health outcomes, the FMLA does not explicitly list health as a goal, nor are health outcomes measured in government-sponsored surveys of FMLA leave usage. This omission should be addressed since the FMLA clearly has important ramifications for the health of workers and their families.
In contrast to the explicit equity focus on gender and health-vulnerability, the FMLA does not acknowledge inequities in access to and use of leave for workers of lower socioeconomic status (SES) and racial/ethnic minority groups. Although these groups are less likely to have access to employer provided leave policies, the FMLA does not include an explicit nor implicit focus on improving outcomes for these vulnerable populations. The ramifications of this omission are visible in the FMLA’s implementation and effectiveness and severely hamper the legislation’s ability to positively improve equity in access to job-protected leave.
Back to top.
What does the FMLA do?The FMLA entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave for a qualifying reason in any 12-month period. This means that after an employee takes FMLA leave, he or she must be allowed to return to the same or an equivalent position with the same pay and benefits. Importantly, if an employee is enrolled in employer provided group health insurance, the employer is required to maintain this benefit while the employee is on leave. The employer is not required to maintain other benefits during FMLA leave (such as life insurance, disability insurance, or pensions) unless the employer would grant such accruals for other types of leave. Eligible employees may take FMLA leave for the following qualifying family and medical reasons:
- The birth of a child and to bond with a newborn within one year of birth.
- The placement of an adopted child or foster-care child with the employee, and to bond with the newly placed child within one year of placement.
- To care for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition.
- An employee's own serious health condition that renders him/her unable to perform the essential functions of his/her job.
- Qualifying exigency leave: an urgent need arising from the foreign deployment of the employee’s spouse, son, daughter or parent on covered active duty that falls under one of the following nine categories: (1) Short notice deployment (notice of one week or less), (2) Military events and related activities, (3) Childcare and school activities, (4) Financial and legal arrangements, (5) Counseling, (6) Rest and recuperation, (7) Post-deployment activities, (8) Additional activities agreed to by both employer and employee, and (9) Parental care.
In the case of an employee’s own serious illness or that of a family member, the employee may take leave on an intermittent or reduced schedule basis, meaning that he or she may take time off in separate shortened blocks of time or in the form of a reduction in their regular work hours. Intermittent leave is only available to workers for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a new child if the employer’s approval is obtained.
In addition, an eligible employee who is the spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin of a service member in the military is entitled to take up to 26 workweeks of unpaid job-protected leave during a single 12-month period to care for the covered service member with a serious injury or illness. Click here for more information on FMLA leave for military families.
Equity and Context:
The FMLA promotes equity by targeting health-vulnerable families and addressing employment discrimination against women who are more likely to take leave to care for family members and are thus more exposed to job loss. However, the FMLA’s limited eligibility requirements (e.g., exclusion of workers in small firms) and the unpaid nature of the leave present access barriers to low-income workers. These barriers disproportionately affect Hispanic and black workers. The case of the FMLA illustrates that for a given policy, equity goals may be present for a particular subgroup (e.g., women) but not addressed for others (e.g., low-income). For more on issues around the unpaid nature of FMLA leave, click here.
- Qualifying Reasons for Leave Under the Family and Medical Leave Act: Defining a “Serious Health Condition” Under the FMLA
- Intermittent leave Under the FMLA
- FMLA Leave for Military Families: Military Caregiver Leave and Qualifying Exigency Leave
Back to top.