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FMLA Turns 30: How Your Rights Have Changed

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) turned 30 in February 2023. This bill was a groundbreaking step for workers’ rights, but many argue it is no longer enough. Many legislators are advocating to expand the scope of the FMLA and providing workers with more options and security if they need to care for their families. 

While the FMLA remains the primary federal law providing workers the opportunity to take family leave, many states have implemented similar laws to address its flaws. In honor of the bill’s 30th anniversary, let’s explore the history of the FMLA, how California has improved it, and how your rights as a worker have expanded in the past three decades.

History of the FMLA

Today, a law like the FMLA seems like it makes sense. Many people take it for granted that established employees can take time off from work to recover from an illness, care for a family member, or welcome a new child to their family. However, there was a long journey before the bill was signed into law in 1993. 

Before its passage, workers had no protections if they needed to take a leave of absence. While employers could offer parental or family leave in their employment contracts or on a case-by-case basis, it was not required. As such, workers who needed to care for family often lost their jobs, and many struggled to return to the workforce afterward. 

That’s why proponents of the bill introduced the FMLA before Congress every year from 1984 to 1993. The bill was passed by Congress twice, in 1991 and 1992, but vetoed by then-president George H.W. Bush. There was strong pushback against the bill by corporate interests, which argued that allowing workers to take time off of work – even unpaid time – could hamstring businesses and hurt the economy. 

It wasn’t until President Clinton was elected that the bill was finally passed. In the three decades since, U.S. employees have used the bill more than 200 million times to take time away from work to care for their families without worrying about long-term unemployment. 

This has had an outsized effect on women and low-income families in particular. Women can better maintain their jobs after having children because they can take time to recover without risking future employment. Meanwhile, low-income workers have more freedom to care for their families without quitting their jobs. If it has affected the economy, it has been positive by keeping more people in work. 

Still, the FMLA is significantly less comprehensive than similar leave laws in countries like France, the U.K., and Spain. Many states have taken it upon themselves to improve on the FMLA to give workers more protection, safety, and security.

Improving on the FMLA: The California Family Rights Act

California’s main improvement on the FMLA is called the California Family Rights Act, or CFRA. This bill expands almost every element of the FMLA to cover more people and situations. Here’s how the two compare:

LengthUp to 12 weeks of unpaid leave with a guarantee of reinstatement and a continuation of health benefitsSame
EligibilityAny worker who has worked for a company for at least 12 months and performed 1250 hours of work for the company in that timeSame
Reason for LeaveNew child or foster child brought into the family, a serious health condition of the employee, their child, spouse, or parent, or qualifying exigencies for the active military duty of the same.New child or foster child brought into the family, a serious health condition of the employee or a designated party, or qualifying exigencies for the active military duty of the employee or a parent, child, or spouse.
Covered EmployersAny employer with 50 or more employees within 75 miles of the employee’s location, all primary and secondary schools, and all public agenciesAny employer with five or more California employees, without regard to geographic proximity, all primary and secondary schools and public agencies
ExemptionsEmployers may withhold FMLA leave to key employees: those who are among the highest paid 10 percent of all the employees employed by the employer within 75 miles of the employee’s worksite.No “key employee” exemptions

Overall, the CFRA covers more people, offers fewer exceptions, and gives workers more freedom to care for their loved ones. 

Furthermore, California also offers the Paid Family Leave (PFL) program to supplement income for workers who take time off from work under the CFRA. In general, if a worker is eligible for CFRA, they are likely to be eligible for PFL as well. This allows California workers to take time off for pregnancy, new children, or a loved one’s illness without sacrificing all of their income. 

There is no equivalent federal program; people in states without the PFL program do not have a national alternative to cover their financial losses while taking unpaid leave. Federal advocates of expanding the FMLA are calling for this to change and for many elements of the CFRA to be adopted nationwide. However, this has not yet occurred.

Defending Your Rights Under the CFRA

While the FMLA still leaves much to be desired, California’s CFRA has closed many of the gaps. Your employer cannot deny it as long as you’re eligible for CFRA leave. If they do, you have the right to take legal action for your losses.At Le Clerc & Le Clerc, LLP, we specialize in helping workers like you defend your rights under the CFRA. If your employer has violated your right to leave under the bill, we can help. Learn more about how we can hold your employer accountable, fight for your job, and help you pursue unpaid wages by scheduling your consultation today.

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