The Family and Medical Leave Act at 20: Still Necessary, Still Not Enough

Two decades ago, President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA. It remains the only piece of legislation aimed at helping to manage the work-life balance.

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Pres. Clinton signs the Family Leave Bill in the Rose Garden of the White House on Feb. 5, 1993. (Greg Gibson/AP Images)

Twenty years ago today, on February 5, 1993, former President Bill Clinton signed his first bill into law: the Family and Medical Leave Act. The Family and Medical Leave Act, also known as FMLA, allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to workers in order to recover from a serious medical condition, provide care for a seriously ill family member, or care for a new child. The FMLA remains to this day the only piece of federal legislation specifically focused on helping workers manage their dual responsibilities in the workplace and in the home.

It was no accident that this was the first piece of legislation Clinton signed, as presidents often use the first bill they sign into law as a way to convey a message about their priorities and what kind of leader they will be. President George W. Bush signaled his conservative roots by first signing House Joint Resolution 7, which honored the 90th birthday of former President Ronald Reagan. President Barack Obama's first signing was of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the statute of limitations for pay equity lawsuits, and signaled his support for the women voters who were so crucial in his election.

Back in 1993 when Clinton took office, it was already clear that our families were changing. Signing the Family and Medical Leave Act showed recognition of this new reality. At the time more than half of mothers were either the breadwinner for their families or shared that responsibility with a partner—which has only increased in the decades since. Long gone were the days when most families had a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver, and the government responded with a new policy to reflect that fact.

But the policy battle was not easily won. The fight for the FMLA had started nearly a decade before, and built upon the legacy of state level family leave legislation. It was initially drafted while President Reagan was still in office, and passed through Congress but was vetoed by former president George H.W. Bush before Clinton came into office and signed it into law (notably, his son George W. Bush also vetoed an expansion of the FMLA to provide up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave to workers who are caring for a wounded service member in active duty, which was later signed into law by President Obama.)

Despite the struggles to see it enacted, the Family and Medical Leave Act and has been shown to cause employers, by their own account, little to no problems even after having been used by workers more than 100 million times. And while the FMLA was, and is, vitally important for workers, the fact that we have seen no additional progress in work-life legislation over the last two decades, in spite of lagging behind the rest of the world in this regard, is an embarrassment at best.

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Sarah Jane Glynn is a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. Her research focuses on gender and employment. 

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