Op-ed: FMLA fails modern family needs

Erin Hernandez
Special to Hays Daily News

My friend recently gave birth to her first child and is dealing with typical newborn adjustments — lack of sleep, emotional stress, and baby concerns. Fortunately, as an educator, her five years of saved sick leave run out as Christmas break begins. Combined, she will have a grand total of twelve weeks to heal and bond with the baby.

However, were she a federal employee, she would have qualified under the new Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA). Effective October 1, 2020, FEPLA guarantees qualifying federal workers twelve weeks of paid leave for birth, foster, or adoption. Federal employees now have their job waiting after maternity leave and they also do not have to scramble to pay bills.

Not long ago, pregnancy was a legal reason for being terminated. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) paved the way for parents — and ill employees or those providing care for a sick family member — to take a leave of absence without losing their job. It offers twelve weeks of unpaid leave and provides extended leave when military families require it during deployment or injury. However, FMLA falls short of modern families’ needs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 16% of private-industry employees had access to paid family leave in 2018. Women who utilize unpaid maternity leave are typically Caucasian, married and have stable incomes. A woman’s ability to utilize unpaid leave is often determined by class, race, ethnicity, sexual-social orientation and marital status.

FMLA also only covers immediate family members. If you or your child has to go through chemo, you might have your job waiting for you after twelve weeks, but if you need to care for your mother-in-law going through chemo…tough luck. Many companies are exempt from offering unpaid leave thanks to strict requirements and lobbyist loopholes; for example, the business must employ at least 50 workers.

The USA remains the only nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to not offer national paid family leave. Scandinavian nations offer paid parental leave for 50-97 weeks! Even my sister-in-law in Mexico received 12 weeks of national paid leave followed by three months paid breastfeeding breaks. The USA’s irregular unpaid leave increases the need for public assistance -- tabs picked up by taxpayers just as a proactive paid leave program would be. Paid family leave also reduces the chance of postpartum depression. Policies throughout the world recognize that early bonding strengthens families. It is an investment in national health — a proactive measure and justified expense.

Do you have enough savings to support your family for three months if you fall ill tomorrow? As a nation that claims to value life and families, our checkbook does not match our priorities. When we provide the support network to build strong family bonds early in an infant’s life, and let family members care for one another when ill, then maybe we can say that we are a nation that cares about families.

Erin Hernandez is a Hays resident, mother of four and MSW student at Fort Hays State University.