A stated goal of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is to minimize employment discrimination on the basis of sex and promote equal employment opportunity for men and women. As explained in our 2020 Policy Equity Analysis of FMLA, the 1993 legislation is gender neutral, but implicitly acknowledges that caretaking responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, and can affect their working lives more than those of men.
By allowing workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work to welcome a new child or to care for a personal or family member's illness, FMLA is intended to support women's equal employment and encourage men to participate more equally in caregiving. According to a national survey from Abt Associates, both eligible women and men take FMLA, though a slightly higher percentage of women take leave and have an unmet need for leave—while also being less likely to receive full pay or any pay while on leave.
However, 30 years after the enactment of FMLA, women have lower access to it than men. Here, we display new estimates of FMLA eligibility and affordability for working adults and working parents by sex. These national- and state-level indicators are also publicly available for download.
National FMLA eligibility and affordability, by sex
To be eligible for FMLA, workers must meet certain tenure and job hours requirements and must work at an FMLA-eligible employer. Access to FMLA is further restricted because the leave it offers is unpaid. In our analyses, we determine that FMLA is accessible to workers if they can afford six weeks of unpaid leave without falling into financial hardship. Financial hardship is defined as having family income less than 200% of the federal poverty line after accounting for six weeks of lost wages.
These requirements have unequal effects by sex. We find that working women are less likely than men to be eligible and able to afford six weeks of unpaid leave.
The inequities in access are even larger when we look at working parents, specifically. The percentage-point gap in eligibility between working men and working women is 4 percentage points—but between working fathers and working mothers, it rises to 10 percentage points. Similarly, while the percentage-point gap in eligibility and affordability between working men and working women is 4 percentage points, it rises to 7 percentage points between working fathers and working mothers.
State-level FMLA eligibility and affordability, by sex
Access to FMLA for working adults and parents by sex varies substantially by state.
Working men, working women and working mothers all have the highest eligibility in D.C. (63%, 59% and 62%, respectively) and Maryland (61%, 56%, and 60%, respectively). Working fathers have the highest eligibility in Delaware and Maryland (69%). Working men, working women and working fathers have the lowest eligibility in Montana (46%, 40% and 54%, respectively). Working mothers have the lowest eligibility in Wyoming (43%).
The picture changes slightly when we look at both eligibility and affordability. All four groups have the highest access to FMLA in D.C. Working men and fathers have the least access in Hawaii (34%), working women have the least access in Montana (31%) and working mothers have the least access in Florida (29%).
Gaps in access between men and women vary by state, too. We find that in every state, working men and fathers are more likely than working women and mothers, respectively, to be eligible and able to afford six weeks of leave. The only exception is Hawaii, where working women and mothers are slightly more likely to be eligible and able to afford leave.
Utah has the highest gap in eligibility between working men and women (9 percentage points) and between working fathers and mothers (20 percentage points). In terms of eligibility and affordability, Louisiana has the highest gap between working men and women (7 percentage points), and Michigan has the highest gap between working fathers and mothers (15 percentage points).
Note: The authors thank Amalya benEzra for her graphics and editorial support.
See more visualizations of FMLA accessibility by race/ethnicity and nativity for Hispanics and read our short fact sheet: New Estimates of FMLA Eligibility and Affordability
Review our 2020 Policy Equity Assessment of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides an extensive analysis of the inequities in FMLA’s design, capacity and outcomes
Read our 2019 article in Community, Work & Family: How much would family and medical leave cost workers in the US?