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Are We There Yet? Going the Distance for the Family and Medical Leave Act

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In honor of the 21st anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, Family Values at Work asked activists around the country to reflect on what FMLA means in their states, how states are taking action to improve upon this seminal law and where we still need to do work. The resulting blog carnival of Voices from the States highlights activists from around the country working for -- and winning -- changes to bring workplace policies more in line with what working families need now. The following is Randi Weingarten's contributing post.

Countless people made the agonizing choice today between losing their paycheck (and perhaps their job) and taking care of a family member who needs them. As a nation, we can do better, and we must.

In the United States, efforts to help workers balance their responsibilities at home and at work have come in fits and starts. Twenty-one years ago this week, President Bill Clinton signed the first law of his new presidency -- the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Since then, Americans have used such leave more than 100 million times at crucial moments in their lives -- during joyous times, such as the birth or adoption of a child, or in difficult periods, such as when recovering from a serious illness or caring for a family member in need. It has benefited women, in particular, because they are far more likely than men to be the primary caretaker for both their children and their parents.

But even that huge step of enacting the FMLA left millions of workers without the ability to take leave when needed. The vast majority of workers -- 88 percent -- do not have access to paid family and medical leave, and another 40 percent are not eligible for unpaid leave under the FMLA. Even workers who are eligible often cannot use FMLA. One recent study found that nearly half -- 46 percent -- of workers who needed leave but did not take it said that they could not afford to take it without pay. Efforts to address the need for paid family leave have stalled, and only three states -- California, New Jersey and Rhode Island -- have passed legislation that allows for partial pay to workers who take family or medical leave.

Paid family leave is not only important for families; it's important for our economy. The Center for American Progress found that providing paid leave benefits increases workforce participation; increases employee retention; and increases lifetime earnings and retirement security among workers, especially women.

The members of the American Federation of Teachers work every day in America's public schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and state and local governments -- and with our brothers and sisters in America's labor movement. We understand how closely education and the economy are connected. Our members, many of whom are educators or nurses -- the two professions still dominated by women -- are attuned to the realities of American life today, including the number of children from families with either two working parents or a single parent. Many of our members are themselves part of what has been called the "sandwich generation," and can relate firsthand to those who are caring for both their children and their parents.

The shifts in our economy have shown how easy it is to fall into poverty, and how hard it is to climb out. There is no upside to the fraying of the social safety net, no matter how some policymakers attempt to defend it. The consequences can be disastrous for families, disruptive to communities and a drain on the economy. Poverty and economic insecurity hurt people in many ways -- including children's ability to achieve their full potential. That's why the AFT fights for things like paid family leave, increasing the minimum wage, the Equal Pay Act, the Affordable Care Act and extending unemployment insurance.

Family and medical leave policies are an essential component of a family's economic security, which is why we fight so hard for these values and protections. And one of the best ways to create that economic security for women is unionization. One-fifth of the growth in inequality for women is a direct result of de-unionization. Women in unions make 12.9 percent more than nonunion female workers with similar characteristics. Women in unions are 50 percent more likely to have retirement plans and one-third more likely to have health benefits than similar women who are not unionized. Unions help create ladders of opportunity. They build the rungs: pay and benefits that reflect the value of their work, and policies that help hardworking people keep their footing, not fall backward--like family and medical leave.

The downward spiral of economic insecurity and inequality is not inevitable, nor is it irreversible. America needs to take the next step and extend paid family and medical leave to more workers.

This originally appeared as a part of the Family Values At Work FMLA Blog Carnival.