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Journal Issue: Caring for Infants and Toddlers Volume 11 Number 1 Spring/Summer 2001

Reports from the Field: Family and Medical Leave: Making Time for Family Is Everyone's Business
Lauren J. Asher Donna R. Lenhoff

What It Took to Pass the FMLA

The FMLA had its roots in debates over a California law mandating maternity leave for childbirth. After a federal district court in 1984 struck down that law as sex discrimination against men, Congressman Howard Berman, a Democrat from California, sought help from the National Partnership for Women & Families, then the Women's Legal Defense Fund, in framing a bill that would require employers to grant maternity leave.

Instead, the National Partnership put forward the idea of a broader leave that would not only meet the needs of new mothers, but address a wider range of work/family conflicts affecting both women and men.

To advocates for women's issues and civil rights, the existing maternity leave programs were flawed in several ways. First, there was no national policy toward maternity leave, just a thin patchwork of state and employer programs. Second, working women—and men—needed job-protected time off not only when babies were born, but also for adoption and in times of family illness. Third, a focus on maternity leave alone risked jeopardizing advances that had been won in the fight against sex discrimination (such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978).

These arguments convinced key lawmakers and advocates that it was time to establish a national family and medical leave that was comprehensive and gender-neutral. From almost the very first draft, the FMLA was designed to include both adoption and childbirth, mothers and fathers, those caring for seriously ill family members, and those who were ill themselves. This inclusive approach recognized that babies and parents need to be together immediately after birth and that the need for caregiving does not end with infancy. Moreover, now that women have entered the workforce to stay, making time for family is everyone's business.

To build the grassroots support necessary to move a major new policy initiative, the National Partnership set out to create the broadest coalition possible. Early members of the Family and Medical Leave Coalition included feminist law professors, the Association of Junior Leagues, the Children's Defense Fund, and the League of Women Voters. Over time it grew to include the American Association of Retired Persons, Alzheimer's Association, Catholic Conference, Hadassah, United Steelworkers of America, American Academy of Pediatrics, and more than 100 other groups focused on women, children and seniors, and on issues of labor, disability, religion, and civil rights.

In their nine-year campaign, coalition members worked to make the case for family and medical leave. They cultivated relationships with unlikely allies in Congress and elsewhere, finding common ground in family values that cut across typical party lines. They testified before the House and Senate and helped secure witnesses for hearings. They drafted model legislation and helped to pass state laws that primed the ground for the federal effort. They found employers who asserted that providing family and medical leave was good for business, and they found families whose stories made the issue come alive. They held press conferences, met with newspaper editors, conducted research, distributed fact sheets, and debated the issue at every opportunity. By addressing a clear need and linking so many interests, the campaign for the FMLA gained bipartisan and popular support. The breadth of the coalition helped insulate supporters from accusations of liberal extremism, economic naivete, or hostility to family values.

Attacks on the idea of family leave were, however, unrelenting. Well-financed business interests and trade associations led the charge against the FMLA, including the Society for Human Resource Management (an organization of personnel managers), the National Federation of Independent Businesses (the small business lobby), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They objected to any laws that set standards of behavior for employers, and they argued that requiring even unpaid leave would be disastrous for business. Other ideological leaders opposed any policy that, in their view, encouraged women to stray from their traditional role in the home. The steady flow of attacks on the FMLA by these groups delayed its passage for nearly a decade.

In fact, after the FMLA was first drafted in 1984, a version of the legislation was introduced in Congress every year until it became law in 1993. With growing public support and compromises that reduced the period of leave and exempted small employers, the FMLA passed both the House and the Senate in 1990 and 1991. It was vetoed, however, by President Bush, and became a key issue in the 1992 presidential campaign. Immediately after President Clinton's inauguration, the bill passed again with strong bipartisan support, and on February 5, 1993, the FMLA became the very first bill President Clinton signed into law. (See Box 1 for details on the law.)