Christine Michel Carter
Data suggests that the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is simply not covering the majority of U.S. workers. The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.
Right now, the FMLA does not cover employees in the private sector whose companies have less than 50 employees. However, the U.S. Census Bureau reports there are nearly 6 million U.S. companies with fewer than 50 employees, and firms with fewer than 20 workers made up 89% of small business.
If an employee does not qualify for leave under the FMLA, they may be able to utilize paid sick leave or vacation time if their employer offers it. But labor laws do not require employers to provide paid or unpaid leave, except for that which the FMLA specifies. Since 1993 when the FMLA became a law, dozens of congressional bills have been introduced to readdress the gaps of FMLA, including the FAMILY ACT.
Consider the nation’s professional, scientific, and technical services sector. It requires a high degree of expertise and is one of the highest-paid sectors. It includes legal, accounting, architectural, consulting, and advertising services, to name a few. But it’s also one of, if not the largest, small business sector, leaving millions without access to the FMLA.
It seems that it’s time for our nation to revisit the eligibility guidelines of the FMLA, especially as it relates to the birth of a son or daughter or placement of a son or daughter with the employee for adoption or foster care. Women and men are being forced to choose: remain a small business employee or entrepreneur and delay or forego a family, or maintain a career with or return to corporate America (a 50+ employee large firm) for the benefits of FMLA.
For those interested in starting and caring for a family, this is a tough call. Case in point: women see more significant career benefits when employed by or are the owners of small companies. Their tasks are less specialized, and because they have greater access to executives and decision-makers, it is easier to advance in a smaller organization. But small companies tend to have limited benefits, and 20% of small businesses fail in their first year. Both of these issues can force women once with small companies into larger firms where they feel like “just a number.”
We also know for some marginalized groups, entrepreneurship is the answer to earning more household income, learning new competencies, and reentering large corporations with better job titles. For example, Black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs. Still, many of these women are forced into entrepreneurship because they can no longer take being invisible in the workplace and manage microaggressions and bias.
Sarah Hardy is now the CEO of Bobbie, a direct to consumer organic infant formula company. Before that, Hardy worked for Airbnb. She wound up writing the company’s maternal leave policy after realizing- during her pregnancy- that one did not exist.
“I started by benchmarking what was being offered at other companies and how Airbnb could not only be up to par for maternity leave but take it up a notch to show their support for working moms. Policymakers here in the U.S. should do something similar- when you look at where our country stands compared to other benchmarks from developed countries, we are severely behind.”
A few female entrepreneurs are saying this is more than a tough call- it’s keeping them from starting families. Ashley Connell is the CEO of the Prowess Project, a company that helps other organizations with resource needs by matching them with educated, experienced women. Prowess Project uses a unique algorithm to pair talent with companies that need their expertise. Connell discusses how the FMLA factors into her decision to start a family:
“As if women needed another barrier to starting a business, the fact that the FMLA protections don’t cover companies with 50 employees and below was a huge reason why at 33, I wrestled with starting my company. On the one hand, pre-children, I have the flexibility to put in the long hours that it takes to make Prowess profitable. On the other hand, my husband and I know we want to have children in the next few years, and working at a corporation, with stable income and job-protection is the wiser option when bringing a child into this world.
Connell says she continually feels guilty for choosing to start a business over starting a family. “As a result of this, it puts pressure on my partner to land that secure job (which luckily he found and loves) vs. scratching his entrepreneurial bug.”
Randi Braun is an executive coach, consultant, speaker, and the founder of Something Major. From interviews with other female professionals, she’s concluded: some businesses aren’t being started and problems that aren’t being solved because women simply cannot afford to take a few months off without pay. Maternal leave consultant Arianna Taboada agrees:
“If we want to invest in the long-term sustainability of women-led businesses, then we also need to consider the intersection of business and reproductive health. Revising FMLA is the opportunity to do just that.”
Taboada has seen women entrepreneurs opt to take their leave completely unpaid because they would rather the money stay in the business to have a little more runway.
“When FMLA was passed in 1993, it was acknowledged by policymakers and advocates as a foundation that could be built upon, and yet, in the 27 years since then, we have not built on it, further driving economic and gender inequity.”
Hardy concludes with a concise explanation as to why the FMLA should be revised to accommodate more U.S. workers.
Originally posted on Forbes