National Opinions

OPINION: Once revolutionary, still inadequate. Who’s celebrating the FMLA at 30?

stock Mother and son looking out of window

In most American states, it is illegal to separate a puppy from its mother before it’s 8 weeks old.

Also in most American states, the average working mom is separated from her baby 10 weeks after delivery.

Our nation is hostile to families. Look at your inbox, social media feed or the GoFundMe site to see just how cruel:

“Believe me when I tell you that asking for help is my last resort,” an Alabama elementary school speech therapy teacher who -- like most teachers -- gets zero paid maternity leave. “If you feel so inclined, I am asking for donations of sick days through the sick bank.”

“This is my first pregnancy and I’m hoping not to go back to work any earlier than I need (to),” wrote a phlebotomist in Pennsylvania who drained her banked sick leave with two cases of COVID before she gave birth. “If anyone can spare donated (personal) time I’d GREATLY appreciate it.”

“Hey friends who work for (the Charles County Board of Education in Maryland). I know this is a long shot, but if anyone is willing and able to donate any leave (even just a day) it would be SO appreciated. With starting in the middle of the school year and having a high risk pregnancy, my leave is going to be used up very quickly.”

And this one:


“Although it is 2023, teachers are still not provided with maternity leave,” wrote Katherina Roeder, a teacher in Missouri who set up a GoFundMe for a fellow instructor. “Because of the early delivery, medical bills, and extended care needed for baby Josephine, I am humbly pleading for any help for this little family.”

This is what some of our hardest-working families are resorting to -- passing around a virtual hat.

This week, our nation is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the last time our federal government tried to do something about this -- the Family and Medical Leave Act. This landmark piece of legislation passed Feb. 5, 1993, championed by advocates who had to slay dragons to get it passed, is good for 12 weeks of leave -- unpaid.

So if you have a baby, fall ill or care for a family member who is sick, you can take up to three months off and still have a job waiting after you’ve walked through a valley of hell. How you pay the bills while that’s happening? Your problem.

“The law was a groundbreaking step forward, making clear that a policy enabling workers to care for their families was an essential, baseline labor standard,” said Jocelyn Frye, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, the primary architects of the FMLA law that struggled for nearly 10 years to pass it. “While the law has been enormously successful in guaranteeing leave for millions of people, it has never been enough to prevent families from making impossible choices between work and family.”

Only 44% of American workers, according to a Labor Department survey, even qualify for FMLA leave because they work for small companies or don’t work enough hours to meet the full-time standard. (Hello, teachers.) In fact, the social media pleas for help appear to be overwhelmingly from women in two fields -- health care and education. We don’t take care of our caregivers.

“I think for teachers they just expect you to have babies over the summer and that’s supposed to be all there is to it,” said Michaela Bruns, the Missouri teacher whose friend set up a GoFundMe account for her when she developed preeclampsia and delivered her baby at 27 weeks. She went straight back to work and now teaches during the day, visits her baby in the hospital at night.

The United States continues to stand alongside just one other nation -- Papua New Guinea -- as the only countries that offer zero paid leave for their families. (I keep wishing that island nation would decide to offer anything, even if it’s just a week, to complete our deserved humiliation.)

But we’re America, and even if our leaders can’t get their acts together to be like Uzbekistan (where the government pays you for up 52 weeks to stay home with your child), or Brazil (up to 25.9 weeks paid) or even Suriname, which just passed maternity leave laws in 2019 (16 weeks paid for mom, seven paid days off for dad), we make it work by helping each other and donating leave.

It’s become a common baby shower gift at offices, donating sick leave. And now, companies and government employers are beginning to forbid these time swap meets.

“I had to write my own letter to ask for donations for maternity leave, twice,” said Nzinga Jones, 41, who worked as a civil engineer for the Texas state Department of Transportation while she had her three children.

She got six weeks leave for her second child. Under Texas law, Jones’s employer could be prosecuted and punished with a fine of up to $5,000 a day if she were a dog or cat and separated from her offspring that early. Her third child (unplanned, common among women who struggle with fertility), was born during the pandemic. She delivered on a weekend and went to work in front her computer at home on Monday.

“Our society has changed, but our nation’s workplace policies have not kept pace,” Judith Lichtman, the attorney who originally wrote out the FMLA (on her typewriter) and helped introduce it to Congress in 1984, then every year until it was passed, said when she testified before Congress on the act’s 20th anniversary.

Lichtman smashed the assumptions that paid family leave hurts businesses (studies show that businesses with family-friendly policies have higher retention, morale and productivity) and burdens taxpayers (workers with paid time off are healthier and wealthier, lowering insurance rates and dependence on other government programs.).

“A final false assumption is that work-family policies are of concern to women only,” Lichtman said.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg took his paid, four weeks off when he and his husband adopted premature twins. And became a spokesdad for sensible family leave, which Americans say they overwhelmingly support.

“I’m blessed to be able to ... have the flexibility to take care of our newborn children, which is, by the way, work,” Buttigieg said in an interview with MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace. “It’s joyful work. It’s wonderful work, but it’s definitely work.”


Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.

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