Five years ago this week, the first bill my husband signed after taking office went into effect -- the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Before then, too many Americans -- Americans like George and Vicki Yandle -- had to choose between spending precious time with a loved one and losing their jobs.
In January 1987, George and Vicki's youngest daughter, Dixie, was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors amputated her left leg and immediately began chemotherapy.
During Dixie's illness, both the Yandles took time off from work to care for her -- and both were fired from their jobs.
In September 1992, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act and sent it to President Bush, who vetoed it. But the following year, my husband signed the FMLA, and in August, it became law.
Sadly, though, this was too late for the Yandles. Dixie had died in April. She was 17.
Since 1993, millions of Americans have taken advantage of the FMLA's protections. The law allows workers in companies of 50 or more -- 88 million people -- to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent or to recover from their own serious illness. While on leave, the employee's job and health insurance are protected.
Let me share a letter I received from Lynne Wade, of Highlands Ranch, Colo., who took advantage of her rights under the FMLA:
"I am writing to let you know that two months ago my husband died of congestive heart failure after ... several years of illness.
"Because your husband signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act, I was able to transport him to doctor appointments and hospital visits.
"The act enabled me to keep my job and bring him comfort at the end of his life. I will be eternally grateful."
Thanks to the FMLA, Lynne did not spend the critical last months of her husband's life worrying about whether or not she would have a job after he died.
According to a bipartisan commission's report called "A Workable Place," over 80 percent of FMLA leave is used to care for serious illnesses. Mike and Molly Goodson of St. Paul, Minn., though, took back-to-back FMLA leave when their two daughters were born.
Many of Mike's male co-workers told him they wished they, too, had taken time off when their children were born. Molly agreed: "I think it's great that more men are taking leave." As a matter of fact, 42 percent of all FMLA leave is taken by men.
A new study from the Families and Work Institute tells us that family leave is not only good for workers; it's also good for business. Despite concerns that the FMLA would burden companies with administrative hassles and expenses, 84 percent of employers find that the benefits of providing family and medical leave offset or outweigh the costs. In fact, many businesses note reduced employee turnover, enhanced productivity and improved morale. And nine out of 10 employers agree that the law is easy to administer.
Elizabeth Carlson, Director of Human Resources for the National Futures Association for over 10 years, reports, "I feel confident that I speak for all levels of management ... when I say that our experience with this leave policy has been very positive."
E-SOURCE, an information service company in Boulder, Colo., chose to adopt FMLA leave policies for its 48 employees although it was not required to do so. Chief Financial Officer Joan Wright considers the benefit a "real plus for recruitment" that more than pays for itself in employee retention, loyalty and lower administrative costs.
She argues that the FMLA should be expanded to include smaller companies such as hers because it's "the right thing to do."
I agree. Now that we've seen how important this law has been for America's workers, why not extend its reach? Why exclude those who work in smaller companies? In times of family crisis, shouldn't they, too, be able to take job- protected leave?
And what about other family obligations? Shouldn't we, at the same time, recognize the importance of routine commitments, such as parent-teacher conferences or medical appointments? Isn't it time to expand the FMLA to allow workers 24 hours of leave each year to meet these responsibilities?
When my husband signed this bill into law, he declared, "Family and medical leave is a matter of pure common sense and a matter of common decency." It's about letting Lynn Wade spend her husband's last days caring for him without fear of losing her job. It's about letting Mike and Molly Goodson take the time to welcome their newborn daughters into the world.
It's about respecting the rights and responsibilities of all Americans as they struggle to balance work and family.
For more information about the FMLA, you can call the U.S. Department of Labor at 1-800-959-FMLA.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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Family and Medical Leave
August 5, 1998
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