The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) turned 20 years old this week, but there are still areas where the law could be improved and many of the benefits the landmark legislation provide are still opposed by Republicans in Congress.  The FMLA was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and is the first federal law that guarantees the right to take time off of work to care for your family members.

“The Family and Medical Leave Act codified a simple and fundamental principle: Workers should not have to choose between the job they need and the family members they love and who need their care,” said acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris. “The FMLA has helped millions upon millions of working families manage challenging personal circumstances at very little cost to their employers and with very little disruption in the workplace.”

The is FMLA most commonly used when a worker becomes a parent, as the law guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for both mothers and fathers.  FMLA is also used when a worker’s child becomes ill or when you need time off to take care of an aging or sick parent.  The benefit of the FMLA is that workers are able to take the necessary time off without risking loss of their jobs and benefits.

In a press conference this week with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Vivian Mikhail of Maine said, “Without FMLA, we would have lost our house.  FMLA allowed me to care for Nadia through her illness, learn Sign Language, take her to out-of-state doctor’s appointments and a deaf children’s playgroup, and care for her when she got surgery for cochlear implants.  FMLA meant I had a job to go back to and that I had health insurance to get us through this terrifying time.  It gave my family the tools to help our daughter overcome her illness and thrive.”

The FMLA was certainly groundbreaking and necessary, but 20 years later it is in desperate need of an update.  The United States lags behind other nations in allowing paid parental leave and the law is not sufficient to cover every worker who needs protection and an improved work-life balance.

For example, the current FMLA doesn’t cover employees of small businesses, it doesn’t apply if you need a leave to take care of a same-sex spouse or partner, a grandparent, or a sibling.  Another problem is that most American workers can’t afford to take an unpaid leave and cannot take the time off, even when they need to.

“FMLA has made a big impact on the lives, families, and jobs of millions of Americans,” said Ellen Bravo, Executive Director of Family Values @ Work.  “But without paid leave, millions more are unable to put family first. Families, the economy, and the workforce have changed significantly over the past 20 years.  We need to expand the protections of FMLA so family leave becomes more affordable and accessible.”

The expansion of protections is necessary on the federal level but on the state level many laws have been passed to fill in the gaps in recent years.  In 2002, California was the first state to pass a Paid Family Leave program and a few years later in 2009, New Jersey followed suit.  Washington State, Arizona, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have recently considered paid family leave programs and in other states nationwide there is a renewed push to adopt policies of earned sick days to tackle health emergencies not addressed by the FMLA.

The bottom line is the FMLA was a huge milestone in the ongoing fight for workers’ rights and yet there is plenty of work still to be done.  It’s unclear whether anything will get through the partisan gridlock of the current Congress – especially with Republicans voting against provisions on the FMLA anniversary – and hopefully as they’ve been striving to do for the past 20 years, states will address the inadequacies of the FMLA until the necessary updates are able to pass on the federal level.