Expanding FMLA Coverage Could Increase Access for More Than 8 Million Workers

For Immediate Release

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Alan Barber, (202) 293-5380 x 115

Expanding FMLA Coverage Could Increase Access for More Than 8 Million Workers

WASHINGTON - Twenty-one years ago today, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law to give covered employees job-protected and unpaid leave for qualifying reasons. The law was intended “to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families, to promote the stability and economic security of families, and to promote national interests in preserving family integrity.” A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) demonstrates that the law currently covers 56 percent of private-sector employees, providing these workers with up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave in case they experience a serious health problem or need to care for a newborn, seriously ill family member, or injured military service member. However, the eligibility requirements in the law mean that 49 million private sector employees are not covered by the law’s provisions. This analysis finds that relaxing eligibility requirements along the lines of some current proposals would increase access to family and medical leave for between 1.4 and 8.3 million more private-sector employees.

The report, “Expanding Federal Family and Medical Leave Coverage: Who Benefits from Changes in Eligibility Requirements ,” looks at the current FMLA eligibility and finds that coverage is far from universal. The authors, economists Helene Jorgensen and Eileen Appelbaum of CEPR, note that employers with less than 50 employees in a 75 mile radius are not subject to the FMLA and employees who have worked for their employer for less than a year or with insufficient hours are also ineligible. According to the 2012 Department of Labor surveys on FMLA coverage and utilization, about 18 million employees take family and medical leave annually, but a large swath of employees are ineligible for the job-protections of the FMLA or cannot afford to take leave even if they are eligible.

In their analysis of the FMLA survey, the authors found that some demographic groups have less access to FMLA coverage than others. For instance, there was a strong relationship between educational attainment and FMLA leave eligibility, with more educated employees having higher rates of eligibility. Young men with a high school degree or less have considerably lower eligibility rates than other employees. And while women of childbearing age have slightly higher rates of eligibility regardless of education, a full two-in-five women have no access to family and medical leave under the FMLA.

Jorgensen and Appelbaum then turn to proposals to expand eligibility for FMLA leaves to encompass a greater share of employees in the United States. In particular, they look at the effects of expanding coverage to smaller employers and/or employees who work fewer hours than current requirements.  They find that lowering the employee threshold from 50 to 30 workers would increase eligibility by 4.7 million employees. Lowering the required number of hours worked would lead to an increase in coverage of 2.7 million to 3.6 million employees.

As Appelbaum points out, “This increase in coverage would be particularly beneficial to young women as women are more likely than men to work for smaller employers and to work part time.”

As more women have joined the workforce over the years, the demand for family and medical leave has increased for both men and women; many workers, however, are currently not eligible for such leaves.

“Reducing the requirements on the number of employees working at a firm or the number of hours worked by an employee would open the door to coverage for several million private sector employees but would still leave a large share of these employees without coverage,” added Jorgensen.

Some partial wage replacement would make family and medical leave more universally available for workers across income groups. Of the six percent of employees having unmet need for leave, nearly half reported they could not take leave because they could not afford it. As the experience with the California program has shown, paid leave can work without imposing undue hardships on employers. An earlier analysis conducted by Appelbaum in California found that the state’s family leave policy was not the job-killer many nay-sayers claimed it would be and in fact, an overwhelming majority of employers found it to have little or no impact on productivity, performance or the company’s profitability.

Late last year, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act was introduced in Congress. The act calls for a national paid family and medical leave program modeled on similar programs in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island. The adoption of the FAMILY Act would go far in achieving the intended goals of the FMLA, raising the share of employees eligible for an FMLA leave and enabling workers who can’t afford leave -- even when covered by the FMLA -- to take the time to care for themselves and their families.

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The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) was established in 1999 to promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people's lives. In order for citizens to effectively exercise their voices in a democracy, they should be informed about the problems and choices that they face. CEPR is committed to presenting issues in an accurate and understandable manner, so that the public is better prepared to choose among the various policy options.

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