Twentieth Anniversary of Fmlaby Former Senator Tom Harkin
Posted on 2013-02-04
HARKIN. Mr. President, this week is a milestone for working
families across America. Twenty years ago this week, President Bill
Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act. There are
many laws we pass in Washington that most Americans never have reason
to know or care about. The FMLA, by contrast, has changed this country
in profoundly important ways.
It has touched the lives of millions of working families. It is almost hard to imagine today, but 20 years ago before this landmark law, workers had to risk their jobs and livelihoods when family needs arose. There was no national policy for maternity leave or paternity leave. New mothers were sometimes compelled to return to work just days after giving birth or to quit jobs they would otherwise have liked to keep.
There was no law allowing someone to take leave from work to care for an aging, potentially dying parent or to care for a child with a serious illness. Families had to leave their loved ones in the hands of others or quit their jobs and face dire economic consequences. There was no policy to allow a seriously ill worker to return to work after recovering from cancer or other serious health condition. All these workers risked being fired, having no job to return to, and losing their health insurance as well.
Countless hard-working Americans were forced to make wrenching choices between their or their family's health and their economic well- being.
The passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act changed all that. It has helped new parents bond with their children during those first magical few weeks of life. It has helped to give workers struggling with a difficult diagnosis the time and security they need to recover. It has allowed loving family members to care for relatives with disabilities and elderly parents.
It has ensured that family members of our wounded warriors can be there to help their heroes recover. Just as important, it has helped countless businesses across the country retain good workers and maintain an experienced and dedicated workforce.
The FMLA has been an unqualified success. It has made a real difference in the lives of millions of hard-working Americans. In fact, the FMLA has been [[Page S464]] used more than 100 million times since its passage 20 years ago.
To be sure, the legislative path to the Family and Medical Leave Act was not easy nor quick. In the Senate, Senator Chris Dodd was the tireless champion of the Family and Medical Leave Act. From the time of its first introduction in 1986 to its final passage in 1993, we would not have the Family and Medical Leave Act without Senator Chris Dodd. He held multiple subcommittee hearings across the country, hearing from dozens of witnesses. He led the bill through multiple committee markups and led the floor fight year after year after year. He worked to override two Presidential vetoes and shepherded it to its final passage in 1993, after which it became the first law signed by a new President, President Bill Clinton.
Senator Dodd found a partner in Senator Kit Bond from Missouri, whose strong interest in shoring up the American family led him to work with Senator Dodd on a bipartisan compromise proposal that would garner significant political support in both political parties. As Senator Bond said upon introducing the final version of the bill in 1993: I believe the single most important step we can take to help all families in America is to try to reinstill individual and family responsibility. To do that, we as a society need to make family obligation something we encourage rather than discourage. That is why I believe we should enact the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Their bipartisan efforts have reaped huge rewards.
My office has heard from people around the country who have benefited from the Family and Medical Leave Act.
The Family and Medical Leave Act meant that Kimberly Jones of Wisconsin was able to help her developmentally challenged son, David, during a critical time. After years of struggling socially and in school, after a misdiagnosis that led to medications that made him worse, David finally received the correct diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, which allowed him to get the right care and the appropriate treatment. The FMLA allowed Kim to take 12 weeks off from work so she could be with her son, David, to advocate for him, seek out professionals, learn how to help him, and support him through detoxification from his previous medications.
Thanks to the FMLA, Kim was able to get David situated and take the time to do what was best for him. Kim says parents shouldn't have to lose their jobs to do what is best for their children. She adds that children and families are in a better place because of the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Tonya Pinkston from Atlanta, GA, was diagnosed with lupus in 2009, but she was allowed only 3 sick days a year. As the sole earner in her household with her parents and daughter, she absolutely had to keep her job. Her boss suggested the Family and Medical Leave Act. Later, when her lupus flared, she was able to take leave for 4 weeks to allow her 1 week in the hospital and recuperation at home.
Without the Family and Medical Leave Act, Tonya would have been fired for missing so much time and she probably would have had to go on unemployment insurance. Tonya thanks God for the FMLA and feels fortunate that President Bill Clinton signed it and it was there when she needed it.
Right now at a Baltimore hospital, Michelle Marrocco is using FMLA leave to care for her son, Brendan, a wounded warrior injured while serving in the Army in Iraq in 2009. Brendan is the first surviving quadruple amputee and has already faced challenges few of us can imagine. In December, he underwent a double-arm transplant. It has been widely reported in the news media. Brendan will need years of rehabilitation and occupational therapy.
When Brendan was originally injured, Michelle's employer at the time voluntarily paid for 3 months of leave. Michelle's current employer adheres to the FMLA, allowing her up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for Brendan following his transplants.
She expects to take 2 months of leave, followed by intermittent leave to be with her son once a week. Without the FMLA, Michelle would have had to quit her job. With the FMLA, she knows she doesn't have to worry about her job, which is a huge relief for her. The lack of income is a big concern, but it is something she and her husband will worry about later. Thanks to new regulations from the Department of Labor, Michelle will be able to take advantage of a new provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act, allowing up to 26 weeks of leave for the families of veterans injured in the line of duty.
The Family and Medical Leave Act is one of our Nation's most important laws. That is why I will introduce this week a resolution honoring the FMLA and the leaders who made the FMLA a reality.
There are so many. I mentioned those who were here in the Senate; there were those in the House who also helped shepherd this through. I would mention, of course, Connie Morella, a former Congresswoman who was so active in the bill.
I would mention also George Miller, Congressman George Miller, and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who worked so hard to get this passed in the House. There were people on the outside, Judy Lichtman, in 1993, was the head of something called the Women's Legal Defense Fund. She and her colleague Donna Lenhoff played absolutely critical roles in getting the FMLA written, introduced, and across the finish line. I wanted to mention those heroes who worked so hard for this important bill.
There is still more work to do to ensure that families are fully able to meet their family responsibilities as well as maintain economic security.
Today, workers are ineligible to take FMLA for a variety of reasons. Some workers do not have enough tenure with their current employer, even if they have been in the workforce for years.
The FMLA requires 1 year of service, but in today's economy, workers more frequently change jobs and, of course, family emergencies happen without warning. Other workers are not able to accumulate the required 1,250 hours of work with a single employer in the preceding year. With the growth in part-time work, both by choice and by necessity, more workers may be ineligible for FMLA even though they are long-term dedicated employees. Millions of people work in businesses with fewer than 50 employees, which means their employer is not covered by the FMLA and does not have to offer that kind of leave.
This also makes it harder for smaller businesses to recruit the best employees because they are not on a level playing field with larger companies that must provide leave and where workers have come to expect it.
Still other workers are excluded from the law because of the nature of their relationship with a loved one. Workers may only take FMLA to care for their minor child, parents or spouses. Under certain circumstances, parents may care for their adult child with a disability. This excludes siblings, grandchildren and grandparents, domestic partners of the same or opposite sex, in-laws, cousins, and everyone else.
That is why the Family and Medical Leave Inclusion Act sponsored by Senator Durbin is so important. This bill will expand and modernize the definition of family to include many currently excluded relationships. Too many workers will otherwise have no one eligible to care for them in a time of need or the person they rely on most will not be recognized as their family for purposes of the FMLA. This is a commonsense change we can and must accomplish.
One of the most common and critical challenges faced by families is the loss of income while taking unpaid FMLA leave. This obliges parents to cut short maternity and paternity leave. It forces cancer patients to work as much as possible, rather than taking time to fully recuperate or, worse, to forgo leave altogether. Still others are financially devastated when they have no choice but to take unpaid leave.
We cannot allow family responsibilities to jeopardize families' economic security. A social insurance program to provide some wage replacement during family and medical leave would allow families to maintain their economic security while seeing to their families. Research shows this could be done on a universal basis with very small, shared contributions by workers and their employers. Two States, New Jersey and California, have already implemented such paid leave systems, helping families in those States to be financially secure during family and medical leave.
[[Page S465]] Today is the day to honor the efforts of so many whose work led to the passage and signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act 20 years ago. This is a time to reflect on how transformative the Family and Medical Leave Act has been for our society. It is also time to look ahead to additional ways we can support families and allow them to stay strong, mutually supportive, and economically secure.
I look forward to future work to expand and strengthen the protections of the Family and Medical Leave Act.
I yield the floor.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Connecticut.