Twenty-one. This number has come to symbolize adulthood. It means good luck in cards. But when it comes to the Family and Medical Leave Act, twenty-one stands for “too damn long” – too little progress over too many years.

Expectant Parents - The father-to-be embraces the mother's pregnant belly

21 years after it’s birth, can we extend FMLA to protect more families?

On August 5, 1993, Congress implemented the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), six months after President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law. For the first time, the United States established the principle that having a baby shouldn’t cost you your job or your health insurance. The law recognized that fathers as well as mothers need time to bond with newborns and that new babies aren’t the only ones who need care. Children, spouses and parents also experience occasional injuries or serious illness and need a hand. And each of us may need time to care for ourselves.

The FMLA includes up to 12 weeks unpaid leave for those purposes. If you’re eligible, your employer has to keep your job open and continue to pay any contributions they make toward health insurance.

It was a good start. Ask Vivien Mikhail in Maine (.pdf link), who used FMLA when her 16-month-old daughter suddenly lost her hearing, or Jennifer Pelton in Maryland (.pdf link), who was able to care for her medically fragile twins, how much it means to know your job and health care will still be there after dealing with family crisis. In fact, FMLA has been used more than 100 million times, with great success. More than half the time people used it for a personal illness. Men as well as women were also able to take time to welcome a new baby, tend to a seriously ill child, and care for an ailing parent or spouse.

But the law excludes a huge chunk of the workforce (.pdf link) – 40 percent – thanks to restrictions specifying that it applies only to companies of 50 or more, and covers only those who’ve been at that employer for at least a year and work at least 25 hours a week on average. Employers can always be more generous than the law and many are, but not enough.

FMLA doesn’t cover routine illness. Fortunately most kids don’t get leukemia, but they do all get stomach flus and nasty coughs; parents who follow doctor’s orders to keep them home can find themselves without a paycheck or sometimes their job. The law has a narrow definition of family, excluding siblings, grandparents and grandchildren. Same-sex couples who are legally married are covered if they live in a marriage equality state (and soon, anywhere in the U.S). And did I mention that the leave is unpaid?

So Melissa Bravo in North Carolina (.pdf link) had a baby and would have been covered – except she hadn’t been on the job for a year and was let go. Tyler Corvin (.pdf link) had to go back to work a week after his wife delivered by caesarean section. He really wanted to help care for her and the baby, but the couple couldn’t afford the financial hit.

Family values can’t end at the workplace door. We need workplace policies for the 21st century. That means fixing the FMLA to cover everyone and every family.

It means making wage replacement possible through the use of a social insurance fund, as three states – California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – have already done. More states want to do so. The $5 million State Paid Leave Fund proposed in the President’s budget would help, as will a smaller pot already made available by the Department of Labor.

But ultimately we need a national fund to cover everyone, such as the one that would be established under the FAMILY Act, (H.R.3712/S.1810), introduced by Senator Gillibrand in the Senate and Rep. Rosa DeLauro in the House. By pooling small contributions from employees and employers, this fund would enable those needing leave to have some vital income during an already challenging time.

We also need paid sick days – as nine cities and one state have already won – for those stomach flus and nasty coughs. More wins are on the horizon.

Let’s be honest. The laws we’re talking about in this country are minimum standards that are truly minimal. Think of Iceland, which has 9 months of paid leave – 3 for mothers, 3 for fathers, and 3 to share, paid for by a combination of national and employer funds; the country is moving to 12 months by 2016. If Iceland is too far away, think of Canada, where mothers of newborns can take 50 weeks at 55 percent pay.

What we’re fighting for is too damn little, but it’s a start. Join us – it’s been too damn long.

Photo by J K Califf released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.