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The Family and Medical Leave Act 1993

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The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 was the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Prior to its enactment, the legislation went through numerous iterations, with nearly a decade of congressional debate, and was vetoed twice by President George H. W. Bush. The FMLA allows a qualified worker up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period to attend to various health-related conditions: the birth or adoption of a child, serious personal health conditions, or the care of a sick child, spouse, or seriously ill parent. The bill guarantees relative job security and requires employers to maintain the same level of employee health benefits paid prior to the leave. Companies with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from providing the benefit; employees working for companies that fall under the mandate of the FMLA must be employed for 1 year, must give 30 days notification in advance of the leave, and may be required to reimburse the company for all benefits if they do not return to work.

The final contours of the FMLA reflect the compromises worked out among various stakeholders involved during its evolution during the 1980s and early 1990s, including the business community, labor groups, feminist organizations, advocates for the elderly, and partisan politicians. Its ultimate passage was proclaimed to affirm the needs of an increasingly feminized workplace; yet an analysis of its provisions, in comparative perspective, reveals the extent to which the policy reflects patterns of social stratification and power distribution in the United States. Although the FMLA recognizes the intersection of work and family obscured for nearly a century by the ideology of separate spheres, the patterns of usage reveal the extent to which care work within families is still defined as women's responsibility--the gender neutrality of the law notwithstanding.

Unlike medical leave policies in other industrialized nations, the U.S. policy has a family focus rather than a specification toward pregnancy and early child care. The first iterations of the legislation (e.g., the Parental and Medical Leave Act) were formulated in response to the increasing labor force participation of women of childbearing age. The rapid aging of the baby boom demographic and the political strength of elder care advocates are linked to the inclusion of caring for elderly parents in the revised law by 1990. Indeed, this reformulation acknowledged women on the so-called corporate granny track: primarily white, middle-class professionals who bear responsibility for the care of aging parents. The narrow definition of family, however, excludes both extended family members and fictive kin potentially in need of care and excludes gay and lesbian partners.

The other characteristics of the FMLA that differentiate it from leave policies in other countries are that the benefit is tied to size of company and, most significant, it is unpaid. Studies show that fewer women than men in the labor force are eligible, although men are less likely to take family leave. Workers who report the most need, including single mothers, seasonal and temporary workers, and other low-income laborers, are less likely than



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