When Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act on February 5, 1993 almost exactly 20 years ago as the first legislative act of his presidency, its establishment as law marked a progressive victory after nearly a decade of ferocious opposition by corporate lobbyists, Republican legislators, conservative media, and right-wing pundits.
Leading the opposition was the US Chamber of Commerce, whose spokeswoman Virginia Lamp denounced the act as “a dangerous precedent.” (She would eventually marry Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and move on to employment with the Koch brothers.) With the honorable exception of the Catholic Church and a number of moderate Republicans in Congress, the self-proclaimed “pro-family” forces in American political life eagerly aided and abetted the Chamber’s attempt to kill the act. Mandating a federal right to unpaid leave, even if restricted to certain workers in larger businesses, would place the nation on a slippery path toward European socialism, or worse, according to the Chamber and its Republican allies, and impose untold damage on business.
But now we know, as with so many other warnings from the far right about the supposedly ruinous consequences of social progress, how the actual results have differed from those predictions. And with two decades of experience, it is clear that the difference has been dramatic.
Put simply, the act’s protections have proved vital for millions of families across the country, whether in times of joy or hardship. Debra Ness, the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, which drafted the original bill and assembled the victorious coalition that supported it, estimates that the law has been used over 100 million times “by women who needed medical care during difficult pregnancies, fathers who took time to care for children fighting cancer, adult sons and daughters caring for frail parents, and workers taking time to recover from their own serious illnesses. The latest Department of Labor survey of employees and employers indicates that up to 14 million employees took leave in 2011.
Released this week to coincide with the act’s anniversary, that study not only demonstrates how vital it is to American families, but how beneficial it has been for the national workforce and economy. Indeed, rather than imposing an insufferable burden on business, the act has enhanced productivity and profit as well as protecting children, the ill, and the elderly.