Policy Equity Assessment: Family and Medical Leave Act

Published: 01.15.2020 Updated: 01.24.2020

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) is a federal law that entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave for a qualifying reason in any 12-month period. The legislation promotes equity by allowing employees to address their and their family’s serious health needs without losing their jobs. At the same time, the policy has eligibility and affordability constraints that limit its ability to promote equity. Research evidence documents that FMLA has some positive impacts, but there is little evidence of its impact on racial/ethnic equity. There is evidence that state paid family and medical leave programs close racial/ethnic gaps in leave-taking. 

Logic: Explicit and implicit equity goals

The FMLA was designed to address employees’ need to balance their work duties with their own health needs or caretaking responsibilities for newborns, adopted children and seriously ill family members.

The FMLA has several explicit, and one implicit, equity goals. Legislators designed the Act to promote equitable employment opportunities for all genders. The Act is also designed to promote more equitable employment security by giving job protection to health-vulnerable employees and their families. Finally, since the purpose of the FMLA is designed to help workers address their own or a close family member’s health, there is an implied health equity goal.

The FMLA does not set a goal of decreasing inequities in access to and use of leave for workers of lower socioeconomic status and racial/ethnic minority groups, although these groups are less likely to have access to employer-provided family and medical leave.

Capacity: Limitations in eligibility and affordability

The FMLA has increased the number of U.S. workers eligible for unpaid family and medical leave, but the policy also harbors capacity constraints that present serious equity challenges. A national survey found that FMLA-eligible employees who needed leave but did not take it were more likely to be female, Hispanic, non-white, low-income, not married, and parents.

FMLA capacity is shaped by two central factors: eligibility and affordability. The FMLA has strict eligibility requirements based on employer and employee characteristics. Low-income and racial/ethnic minority employees are more likely to be ineligible for FMLA because of the types of jobs they have or the employers they work for. Estimates of FMLA eligibility range from 59% of employees (which does not include the self-employed) to 46% of workers. Research has found that Hispanic workers in particularly are less likely to be eligible for FMLA leave.

Affordability is a significant FMLA equity challenge: the fact that the FMLA is unpaid renders leave unaffordable for many employees. Many adults in the U.S. do not have resources to handle emergency expenses, and black and Hispanic families are less likely to be able to afford a financial setback. diversitydatakids.org research has found that racial/ethnic minority workers, particularly Hispanic workers, are burdened by the affordability of leave.

States have taken the lead in addressing FMLA affordability and other capacity challenges: eight states and Washington, D.C. have enacted paid family leave programs that cover most private sector employers.

Capacity is also shaped by implementation, employer compliance, and enforcement. The FMLA is a labor standard, rather than a program, and is overseen by the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. Department of Labor. Due to lack of data, we don’t have a full picture of how FMLA compliance impacts vulnerable subgroups. But there is evidence that FMLA implementation, largely conducted by employers and employees, is hampered by lack of employee knowledge and a cumbersome process, which disproportionately burdens minority and low-income workers. FMLA enforcement historically has been reactive (i.e., dependent on employee complaints), a process which may inequitably disadvantage workers with less human capital or who do not know their FMLA benefits. More recently, the WHD has proactively engaged in strategic enforcement that targets investigations into employer practices in low-wage industries.

Research evidence

The FMLA is associated with overall positive effects on parental leave-taking among mothers and fathers and on infant health outcomes. However, FMLA benefits do not accrue equally to all. The positive effects on leave-taking and child health are mostly confined to working parents who are socioeconomically advantaged. Therefore, the FMLA may actually contribute to widening inequities in leave-taking for lower-socioeconomic status families. Data and measurement challenges mean that there are many unanswered questions about the FMLA’s effectiveness. There is a dearth of studies of FMLA impacts on racial/ethnic equity, preventing a full understanding how the FMLA may affect racial/ethnic minorities differently.

The positive effects of paid family medical leave vary by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity.

Research on state paid family medical leave has found positive impacts on leave-taking for employed mothers and employed fathers and, unlike the FMLA, positive effects on mothers’ labor force participation and return to work around a birth, mothers’ longer-term employment and work hours and younger women’s labor force participation. On the other hand, one study found that paid family and medical leave was associated with a small increase in unemployment among young women, potentially due to gender discrimination. Several studies found that California’s paid family and medical leave program positively impacted health by increasing breastfeeding rates, improving infants and young children’s health outcomes, and decreasing nursing home utilization. 

In contrast to the FMLA research, evidence from California paid family medical leave programs highlighted a reduction in, but not an elimination of, leave-taking disparities for vulnerable mothers (including mothers who are unmarried, have less than bachelor’s degrees, and are black and Hispanic). The positive health effects of paid family medical leave varied by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity, with mixed findings regarding the policies’ ability to close equity gaps in health.

Pamela Joshi
Pamela Joshi
Policy Research Director
photo of Rebecca Huber ddk staff member
Rebecca Huber
Research Associate
Dolores Acevedo Garcia
Dolores Acevedo-Garcia
Director, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy