08/05/2014 02:15 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2014

Expand FMLA -- Good for Women, Good for Families, Good for All

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The 21st anniversary of the implementation of the Family and Medical Leave Act on August 5 provides an important moment to examine how far our nation has come since President Clinton signed FMLA into law in 1993 and how far we still need to go.

First drafted in 1984, passage of FMLA took nine years of effort by many organizations, policy-makers and activists. It is the first national legislation that established an employment standard recognizing that women and men need time to provide care for family members and for personal illness without jeopardizing their jobs.

Finally, this country started to acknowledge that a workplace that honors family values is good for all of us, and good for the economy.

Since its inception, FMLA has been used more than 100 million times, helping 35 million people keep their jobs and health insurance while they cared for a family health crisis or a new baby.

But FMLA still has a long way to go. Because FMLA leave is generally unpaid with eligibility and use restrictions, many who qualify for it can't afford to take it, others suffer financially when they do, and millions more who'd like to benefit from it are excluded.

Shelby Ramirez, a 9to5 activist in Denver, experienced the positive side of being to use FMLA. She's also seen its challenges.

Shelby works full-time as a hotel security guard. She is the mother of two daughters and a grandmother of two. Like many people, Shelby also cares for an elderly parent.

When her younger daughter needed surgery at the same time her parent needed immediate medical attention, Shelby was able to take time to care for them, thanks to FMLA. But that time was unpaid.

"Having to take time off unpaid was an enormous financial burden for me," said Shelby. "After not paying rent and utilities, it took me four months to only partly get caught up with bills. Although FMLA is great and I was able to keep my job, having paid family and medical leave is necessary now and for the future for our families."

Ramirez now spends her free time fighting for this change, and her efforts landed her a lunch date with President Barack Obama at the White House Summit on Working Families in June.

The benefits of paid leave are vast: lower unemployment rates and greater job security, financial independence, improved health outcomes, economic growth and savings to businesses by reducing worker replacement costs.

Paid leave insurance programs have passed in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, and are being considered by working families, unions, businesses and policy-makers in a dozen other states. In California, employers report that the program has had either a positive or no noticeable effect on turnover, productivity, profitability and morale.

In Washington State, a paid leave program awaits funding. New York State is the next state likely to pass a family leave insurance program. Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire have each approved a task force to explore the issue. And several other states, including Colorado, Hawaii, Nebraska and Wisconsin are laying the groundwork for similar legislation.

Paid family and medical leave strengthens families, protects public health and boosts the economy.

Too many people across the country still lack this crucial workplace policy. Today, only 12 percent of the U.S. workforce has paid family leave through their employers, and less than 40 percent has access to any kind of employer-provided short-term disability insurance to cover serious personal illness. This is especially important for women, who make up more than two-thirds of family and informal caregivers.

It's time to celebrate the FMLA by expanding it to benefit women, to benefit families, to benefit all of us.

We can do better. We must do better.