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On the Anniversary of the FMLA, Ensure Direct Care Workers Are No Longer Left Out

By Jake McDonald (he/him) | February 5, 2024

Thirty-one years ago today, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law, inaugurating a momentous change. For the first time, millions of workers had the right to take unpaid, job-protected leave from work to welcome a new child into their family or to care for themselves or a family member with a serious illness.  

Since then, people across the country have used the FMLA (over 315 million times!) to care for themselves and their families without losing their jobs or access to health insurance. Unfortunately, the FMLA misses many people who need it the most – including direct care workers.  

The FMLA Fails to Cover an Essential Workforce

Why are most direct care workers—whose very work lies in assisting older adults and people with disabilities with essential daily tasks and activities—unable to take time off to care for their own families? Partly, it is because the FMLA only covers workers at bigger companies who are there for at least a year, having worked a minimum hour requirement that many direct care workers are unable to meet (at least 1,250 hours in the last 12 months). This means direct care workers are unlikely to qualify for FMLA leave because so many work for smaller agencies, experience high rates of turnover, work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and only have part-time hours that can unexpectedly fluctuate (as when a client passes away or an authorization for home care hours is cut).  

Further, even when a direct care worker qualifies for FMLA leave, they may be unable to use it. Because of historically low pay and economic precarity, direct care workers cannot always afford to take unpaid time off to welcome a new baby to their family or to care for an ailing spouse. Every paycheck is needed when annual median wages for direct care workers are just $23,688; 39 percent live in low-income households; and 46 percent rely on public assistance. The FMLA not only fails to cover many direct care workers, but its benefits remain largely out of reach even for those legally entitled to it. 

Unjust and Unfair

The inequity of care workers not being able to take time off from work to care for themselves and their loved ones becomes even more concerning when you consider the workforce’s demographics: 86% of all direct care workers are women, while 62% are people of color. The workforce heavily skews female and BIPOC, which is exactly the demographic that is far more likely to need to take family or medical leave. These workers are also exposed to hazardous working conditions, with workplace injury and illness rates that are some of the highest of any industry in the U.S. As a result, expanding access to family and medical leave and making it a paid benefit is a vital part of addressing racial and gender injustice across the U.S. 

It’s Time to Fix This: Pass the FAMILY Act!

To make sure direct care workers are no longer left out, PHI has joined organizations across the country in calling on Congress to pass the FAMILY Act, which would start a nationwide paid family and medical leave program. Based on the success of state-level paid leave programs, the bill would fund up to 12 weeks (about three months) of family and medical leave with partial wage replacement.  

Nearly all of us will, at some point, need to take time away from our jobs because illness strikes or we become a parent. Such life events should not ruin us financially or make us lose our jobs or health insurance. Our country relies on direct care workers to care for older Americans and people with disabilities. This workforce, in turn, should be able to depend on a paid family and medical leave benefit that allows them to do the same for themselves and their families. So, on this 31st anniversary of the FMLA, let us repeat: paid leave is essential for the direct care workforce. 

Jake McDonald (he/him)
About The Author

Jake McDonald (he/him)

Senior State Policy Advocacy Specialist
As the Senior State Policy Advocacy Specialist, Jake McDonald improves job quality for direct care workers by deepening and expanding PHI’s state-based advocacy approach.

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