Workers occasionally need time away from their jobs to welcome a new child, to address an injury or illness or to care for a family member. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—which turned 30 years old in February—supports this basic need by guaranteeing workers job protection for up to 12 weeks while they care for themselves or their family.
Even though this landmark policy has helped millions of families, our decade of research on family and medical leave has shown that FMLA's reach is limited, with large racial/ethnic inequities in accessibility. Workers face two significant barriers to accessing FMLA: Restrictive eligibility criteria disqualify many workers, and the unpaid leave that FMLA offers makes it unaffordable for even more.
Here, we display new estimates of FMLA eligibility and affordability for working adults and for working parents specifically, by race/ethnicity and by race/ethnicity and nativity for Hispanic workers. These national- and state-level indicators are also publicly available for download.
To be eligible for FMLA, employees must work for an employer for at least one year and at least 1,250 hours in the year preceding leave. They must also work for an FMLA-covered employer, which includes all public sector agencies, public and private elementary and secondary schools and private employers with at least 50 employees within 75 miles.
As a result of these criteria, many working adults are excluded from FMLA protections. We estimate that only 52% of working adults and 57% of working parents (excluding the self-employed) are eligible for FMLA, leaving nearly half of working adults ineligible.
Eligibility and Affordability
In addition to restrictive eligibility rules, the fact that FMLA only offers unpaid leave further limits who is able to take it. Even eligible employees must consider the economic costs of unpaid leave; not all workers and families have the financial resources to go without a paycheck for several weeks.
Affordability consequently creates a significant barrier, particularly for low-income workers. Affordability also creates deep inequities in the ability to access leave, especially for Black and Hispanic working parents. We determine that workers are eligible for and able to afford FMLA unpaid leave if 1) they are estimated to meet FMLA eligibility criteria and 2) their family’s total resources does not fall below 200% of the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) after subtracting estimated lost wages from taking six weeks of unpaid leave under FMLA—the average amount of leave taken by employees.
Variation by State
Differences in each state’s economic base influence the types of jobs available and affects whether that state's workers meet FMLA eligibility requirements and can afford unpaid leave. We find that the share of workers who meet FMLA eligibility criteria and can afford six weeks of unpaid leave varies from 43% and 33% of workers in Montana to 61% and 48% in the District of Columbia, respectively.
In most states, working parents are as or more likely to be eligible and able to afford unpaid leave than working adults as a whole. However, in a few states, including Florida, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico, the opposite is true.
Explore our new national- and state-level indicators estimating FMLA eligibility and affordability for working adults and working parents by race/ethnicity, and by working adults and working parents by race/ethnicity and nativity for Hispanics
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?