Family Medical and Leave Act Turns 30: Five Actions Business Can Take in 2023

February 8, 2023
  • Jen Stark portrait

    Jen Stark

    Co-Director, Center for Business and Social Justice, BSR

  • Vicki Shabo portrait

    Vicki Shabo

    Senior Fellow, Paid Leave Policy and Strategy, Better Life Lab, New America

  • Leng Leng Chancey portrait

    Leng Leng Chancey

    Executive Director, 9to5

Key Points

  • The Family and Medical Leave Act has been used more than 460 million times to help working people welcome a new child, care for a spouse, or for parental and sick leave.
  • However, only 24 percent of private sector workers have dedicated paid family leave at their company.
  • Access to paid family leave is a social justice issue that companies can address internally as well as champion externally.

This month, on February 5, 2023, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) turns 30. The FMLA—which guarantees job-protected, unpaid leave to certain workers—was always intended as a first step toward a country that honors and supports all working people, families, and businesses. But decades later, its promise has not yet been fulfilled.

Since 1993, the law has been used more than 460 million times to help working people welcome a new child, care for a spouse or for parental and sick leave. Yet despite its benefits, many—including those in disproportionately low-wage jobs, hourly workers, workers of color, rural workers, immigrants, and others who make our workplaces thrive—are unprotected. Even among workers covered, the fact that the law only guarantees unpaid leave means millions of working adults cannot use the FMLA due to financial risks.

Among the 44 percent of the workforce excluded are people who work for smaller businesses, part-time workers, and any workers with less than 12 months’ tenure. This translates into workers trying to fit healthcare appointments, both routine and significant, on their breaks; children being placed in daycare settings where quality is second to coverage of hours; and frontline workers worrying about ailing loved ones in hospital rooms alone. These gaps can also impact job stability: nearly one in four parents reported last year being fired from their jobs due to the continuing breakdown of child care for their kids.

Access to paid family leave, and expansions of the FMLA, are social justice issues that companies can address internally as well as champion externally.

The US is an outlier when it comes to paid family leave and paid sick or medical leave relative to our economic peers. While most other countries’ laws guarantee paid leave to workers—and multinational companies outside the US are used to doing business within these regulatory landscapes—there is no US equivalent.

Despite the lack of federal requirements for paid family and medical leave, two programs have helped fill the FMLA’s gaps and paved the way for future progress.

First, 11 states and the District of Columbia (DC) have created public programs that guarantee access to paid family and medical leave to all workers. More state programs are on the horizon in 2023 and beyond—and they will help to build additional momentum for a national paid leave program, which a range of communities, including smaller and larger employers, has endorsed. 

Second, private sector innovation has shown the value of paid leave in helping to create healthier and more diverse workforces, with benefits for productivity, retention, and profits. For companies that articulate equity, inclusion, and justice and set goals to achieve gender and racial equity, paid leave is a policy that can help drive positive outcomes.

Despite important business and economic benefits, paid leave leadership is still the exception rather than standard business practice—only 24 percent of private sector workers have dedicated paid family leave at their jobs.

Business can become paid leave leaders by taking the following five actions in 2023:

  1. Adopt comprehensive paid family and medical leave programs. Make programs meaningful in terms of duration. Offer a flexible process for returning to work. Make the program reflective of new parents and all workers with caregiving responsibilities. There are examples of great corporate leadership to draw from.
  2. Ensure paid leave are provided to all workers, regardless of job, and with minimal tenure requirements. Take a proactive approach to closing the gaps between professional and hourly workers, full-time and part-time workers, and new employees. If a substantial part of your business includes contractors, ensure they have the same policies as your own.
  3. Encourage workers to use the policy. Manager training is an essential precondition to the success and utility of your policy, but so is storytelling—from workers and managers, from your employees’ family members, and from company leadership. When leaders can set an example by taking leave of their own, they should do it and talk about it.
  4. Measure and report publicly on the impact of your policy. Add to the data about effective paid leave programs, and help answer the questions of other companies looking at new policies, by measuring the relationship between paid leave and retention, advancement, employee health, healthcare costs, and more. Help other companies and policymakers understand the costs and benefits of paid leave by tracking and reporting on the costs and multiple measures of value you see with your newly implemented policy.
  5. Advocate for public policies. Officeholders take business leaders’ views with great weight. Help them understand the value, lead on paid leave for everyone, and help dispel preconceptions they might have about business opposition to national paid leave programs.

In addition, be a leader for change within the trade associations you belong to. Don’t let them talk about the value of gender and racial equity and the importance of a strong and diverse workforce while opposing public policies that would help to achieve these goals.

By becoming a paid leave leader, you’ll join other corporate and business leaders on advocating for social justice issues, setting the country on a better path for all.

BSR’s Center for Business and Social Justice works with a network of civil society partners and experts in paid family and medical leave to provide tangible guidance to business. All BSR members can contact the Center for specific inquiries.

Resources to Help Your Company Become a Paid Leave Leader:

Paid Family Leave: Why It’s Essential and How to Design An Effective Policy (ADP)

Designing Equitable and Effective Workplaces for A "Corona-normal" Future of Work (Better Life Lab at New America)

Partnership in Action: An Employer Guide to Building Gender Equity in the Workplace (National Partnership for Women & Families)

9to5 Newsline (9to5 National Membership Organization)

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