The Family and Medical Leave Act is 30 Years Old. What’s Next for Working Families?

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Source: National Partnership for Women and Families Twitter

You may have noticed the conversation across social media celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). And you probably noticed these celebration posts are accompanied by calls for a new national policy to give workers paid family and medical leave.

February 5th, 2023, marks the anniversary of the passage of the FMLA legislation, providing eligible employees with unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family and medical reasons. In 2021, national legislation was proposed to create and fund a national paid family and medical leave program, but it never made it out of Congress. 

Understanding FMLA

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that provides eligible employees of covered employers with unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. After being employed 12 months, eligible employees may take up to 12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for one or more of the following reasons: 

  • The birth or placement of a child with the employee for adoption or foster care, and to bond with the newborn or newly-placed child; 
  • To care for a spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition, including incapacity due to pregnancy and for prenatal medical care; 
  • For a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of their job, including incapacity due to pregnancy and for prenatal medical care; or 
  • For any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that a spouse, child, or parent is a military member on covered active duty or call to covered active duty status. An eligible employee may also take up to 26 workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness when the employee is the spouse, child, parent, or next of kin of the service member. 
  • An eligible employee is limited to a combined total of 26 workweeks of leave for any FMLA-qualifying reasons during the single 12-month period.

The FMLA was the first bill President Bill Clinton signed into law in his first presidential term, in 1993. This was nine years after the bill was first drafted by the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, now known as the National Partnership for Women and Families. Nine years is a long time to wait for the passage of a law to allow workers to take unpaid time off to heal after childbirth or care for a sick family member. 

The US is an Outlier

According to the National Partnership, each year, nearly 15 million workers take time off using the FMLA. Yet there are loopholes in the FMLA, which means that many working parents don’t have access to the program and others can’t afford to take unpaid leave. 

In North Carolina, only 3.4 percent of all families—single-parent and two-parent—have a stay-at-home parent who cares for children full-time. 

Without workplace supports, such as paid leave, parents often struggle to meet their work and family obligations. The results: 75% of U.S. mothers and 50% of fathers say they’ve passed up work opportunities, switched jobs, or quit working to care for their children. With the national unemployment rate at 3.4%, family-friendly workplaces are one strategy to help alleviate this shortage. 

The landscape on paid leave begs the question of, What are we waiting for? While countries’ laws vary for maternity, paternity and family medical leave, here’s a summary of the 38 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries’ policies from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC). 

  • Maternity Leave: Thirty-seven OECD countries offer paid maternity leave to working mothers after childbirth.
  • Paternity Leave: Twenty-seven OECD countries offer paid paternity leave to working fathers after childbirth
  • Parental Leave: Twenty-eight OECD countries offer paid parental leave to working parents after maternity leave, paternity leave, or both. 
  • Family Caregiving Leave: Twenty-nine OECD countries provide paid leave for a worker to care for an ill child and many countries have extended it to include other family members.

OECD is an international organization that brings together Member countries and a range of partners that collaborate on key global issues. This alliance helps drive and anchor reform in more than 100 countries around the world, building on collective wisdom and shared values. In 1974, Sweden was the first country in the world to replace gender-specific maternity leave with parental leave – Swedes get 12 months maternity leave and 6 months paternity leave.

While the United States is an OECD country, sharing many of the standards, programs, initiatives and values of the alliance, we offer none of these paid leave policies under federal law. The U.S. remains one of only six countries in the world without paid leave. BPC ‘s infographic provides a good summary across the OECD:



People often ask, “how will we pay for it?” or “won’t an employee’s absence hurt our business?” There are some promising trends at the state level, but it is a disparate patchwork of laws. These state programs are paid through a number of mechanisms, such as pooled payroll taxes on employees and/or employers, temporary disability insurance or private insurance.

Ultimately, we pay for it by not having it, with high turnover and stressed employees who may not perform their best. We pay for it by not having it, with an employee that comes to work sick because they can’t afford an unpaid day off.

The results for supporting our workforce are well-documented. Paid leave and other family-friendly workplace benefits increase recruitment, retention and productivity; improves family economic security; and supports children’s healthy development. 

Employers Can’t Wait

Through our Family Forward NC initiative, we’re telling stories of success — of NC employers that can’t wait for a national paid leave program. Small businesses across our state, like A Place at the Table in Raleigh, the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, and Aeroflow Healthcare in Asheville, offer paid leave for their employees. Governments are also offering their employees paid leave benefits. Most NC state employees have paid leave benefits and several local governments such as Wilmington and Person County offer them. Read about more NC employers that have created family-friendly workplaces. 

Many small businesses are ready for a national paid leave program. Ben Knight, owner of Benny’s Big Time restaurant in Wilmington, spoke at a 2021 press briefing hosted by the NC Family Cares Coalition. Knight was there to support the introduction of the North Carolina Paid Family Leave Insurance Act and the North Carolina Healthy Families Healthy Workplaces/Paid Sick Days Act. Knight noted that a paid leave program would create a level playing field for small businesses, allowing them to better compete for talented employees and also retain them.

“We have modeled our whole company culture after the idea that a happy team makes happy food and that makes happy guests. We want our team to be happy and to feel supported outside of work. It’s created a tremendous amount of goodwill with our team,” said Knight. 

Families Need Paid Leave

At the state and national levels, efforts to create paid leave programs continue. Here’s how you can keep up to date and take action:

  1. Get the facts about paid family and medical leave and other family-friendly workplace policies in our Guide to Family Forward Workplaces.
  2. Prevent Child Abuse NC advocates for paid leave policies which support family economic stability, a key child abuse prevention strategy.
  3. Join the NC Families Care Coalition Action Network to stay informed about what’s going on in North Carolina and how you can get involved.
  4. The National Partnership for Women and Families tracks federal legislation and advocates for policies that promote workplace and economic equity. 

Until our state and country’s leadership can offer more than a patchwork, through more inclusive, sustainable policies, employers can take the reins in their own workplace and be advocates for policies to ensure families can be more supported to do their best work. For children and families, the benefits of family-friendly workplaces are numerous and long-lasting. They include positive impacts on health, development and well-being, financial stability, and future career success. Learn more about the process to get certified as a family-friendly employer today. 

The NC Early Childhood Foundation is driven by a bold – and achievable – vision: Each North Carolina child has a strong foundation for life-long health, education, and well-being supported by a comprehensive, equitable birth-to-eight ecosystem. We build understanding, lead collaboration, and advance policies to ensure each North Carolina child is on track for lifelong success by the end of third grade.