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A Personal Family and Medical Leave Act Story: How Children and Family Policy Became a “Big Thing”

Twenty years ago this week, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) ensured that American workers could place their families first without fear of losing their jobs.

February 5, 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed his first piece of legislation into law, was a single, though crucial, point in a long process. I was fortunate to see that process up close as staff to former Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), a true children’s champion. Thinking back to that week, both hectic and heady, it’s worth reflecting on how people from different vantage points came together to make family policy such a big thing.

With Senator Kit Bond (R-MO), Senator Dodd formed the bipartisan duo that wholeheartedly led the family leave fight in the Senate. Many viewed children’s issues as nice to do, but as taking a back seat to the “big things” in policymaking. Dodd thought children and family issues were big things and set about addressing the fundamental challenges families across America were facing.

From his close-knit family, Dodd knew that caregiving responsibilities fall mostly on family members. He also recognized that as women increasingly shouldered all or part of the breadwinner’s role, those two responsibilities could mean wrenching collisions. His signature efforts helped balance work and family: one made child care more accessible and affordable for working families, with the first national child care program in 1990. The other ensured the right to family and medical leave.

FMLA embodied a sweeping concept: meeting critical family needs is so important to individuals and society that workers should have the right to tend to those needs and be secure in their jobs. FMLA guarantees eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, care for a seriously ill family member, or recover from their own serious health conditions.

The FMLA movement began with families coming forward to tell their stories of impossible choices when called away from their jobs by life’s events, whether joyful as welcoming a new child or distressing as caring for a seriously ill loved-one. Led by what is now the National Partnership for Women and Families, a coalition of more than 100 organizations took up the cause to make these families’ needs a “big thing” for policymakers on Capitol Hill.

A new employer mandate wasn’t politically easy. Dodd and Bond, along with their House counterparts, debated, cajoled, and negotiated to get their colleagues to see family needs as paramount. The path to enactment became a roller coaster, with multiple votes of approval, Presidential vetoes, and attempts at veto overrides that fell just short. Yet, the sponsors kept buttonholing, advocates kept visiting, and bipartisan support kept growing. When President Clinton’s election supplied the missing ingredient to make FMLA law, 71 Senators from both sides of the aisle voted for final passage.

FMLA has proven a big thing indeed. It has been used more than 100 million times since 1993. A just-released Department of Labor study shows employers feel FMLA is working. The law’s relevance remains clear. Expansions in 2008 and 2010 recognized the extraordinary caregiving responsibilities falling to families of deployed Service members and severely injured veterans. Baby Boomers are face to face with being part of a nation of caregivers. Early brain development research has validated the gift of time FMLA bestows on new parents for forging bonds that foster the social-emotional foundations for learning.

For advocates hoping once again to make children and family policy a big thing, FMLA resonates in other ways. Reaching agreement took many people with a lot of patience and determination, talking and listening over a long period of time. Ultimately, people with different views of relationships between government, families, and employers found common ground on family-centered policy. Surely this isn’t a lost art. The process is complex, but the import can be profoundly simple.

On February 4, I had my 6 year-old son in tow for the historic Senate vote. He seemed unimpressed with my explanation for why he was spending an evening in my office—that sometimes when children are really sick, their moms and dads take time off from work to care for them and lose their jobs. But when my son caught the flu several weeks later, he worriedly asked who would take care of him. Reassured that his dad and I were taking turns, he said, “You know, Mom, it’s ok for moms and dads to stay home with their kids when they’re sick.” I absentmindedly replied that yes, of course it was. “No, Mom,” he said sternly. “I mean, it’s the law!”

Although FMLA didn’t actually apply to my son, his earnest combination of relief and empowerment surely must resemble the feelings of all those workers the law has protected in putting their families first. So, on this Family and Medical Leave birthday, to all the courageous families and tireless advocates, to Senator Dodd and his persistent colleagues, and to President Clinton making a bill a law—thanks a hundred million!


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