Pres. Clinton signs the Family Leave Bill in the Rose Garden of the White House on Feb. 5, 1993. (Greg Gibson/AP Images)

Thirty years ago, Congress passed, and the president signed into law, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which enabled some workers, for the first time, to take unpaid, job-protected leave to care for their children, themselves, or a family member. FMLA was the best federal leave policy possible at the time, and it has helped millions of workers and their families. But thirty years of evidence confirms that U.S. children and families need much more. Congress now must pursue federal policy that reflects this knowledge and the needs of America’s families and children. 

The lack of earned family leave for millions of U.S. workers forces parents to make an impossible choice: Continue earning necessary income, or forfeit that income and care for their newborn, sick child, family member, or themselves. Paid family leave promotes healthy child development, family economic security, and labor force retention, by allowing parents and caregivers to maintain steady employment and income without sacrificing their family obligations.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that only about 1-in-4 private sector employees has access to paid family leave. Hispanic and Black workers are much less likely to have access to paid leave compared to their white counterparts. The U.S. is the only wealthy country in the world that does not offer paid parental leave at the national level. Eleven states and the District of Columbia have passed paid family and medical leave laws, while New Hampshire and Vermont guarantee access to leave for state employees, but only provide a voluntary option to purchase coverage for the private sector.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, Congress passed a temporary paid family and medical leave program through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and required some employers to provide paid leave for employees to care for themselves or their children. This included the need to care for children whose schools or childcare centers were closed due to COVID-19. Lawmakers signaled with this program that they understand the pressing need for parents and caregivers to have access to paid leave.

We need a family and medical leave policy that meets this moment, and not the moment of 30 years ago. Congress must pass the FAMILY Act to create a paid federal leave program that covers employees sooner, for more purposes, and includes those who are self-employed, contractors, or work for any sized employer. On this important anniversary of the FMLA, it is time for Congress to establish a permanent paid family and medical leave program to serve children and their families in the ways they need.