This guest article is by Emily Hecht-McGowan, Director of Public Policy for Family Equality Council.
Today, we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the inclusion of our families in this important law. Since 1993, Americans have accessed benefits under FMLA over 100 million times, and we’ve worked hard as a community to make sure this protection extends to our lives and our families.
What is the Family & Medical Leave Act?
FMLA is the only federal law that allows workers to take leave without endangering their job. Eligible workers can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for health conditions, to bond with a new child, or to care for an ill family member.
Because of our work with the US Department of Labor and our national coalition partners, the FMLA coverage was expanded in 2010 to allow non-legally recognized parents to take leave when their children are sick. In other words, due to this change many of our families now have access to this critical family benefit – including same-sex spouses or domestic partners who are unable to adopt or otherwise become legal parents to the children they are raising.
These provisions can make a tremendous difference for our families, especially when we live in states that don’t permit joint or second-parent adoptions.
What impact does this have on Families? Gina, Pauline, and Lily’s experience with FMLA
Gina Patterson and her wife Pauline were one of the first same-sex couples married in New York – and at the time Pauline was three months pregnant with their daughter Lily. Full of hope for their life together and excited to be welcoming a daughter into their lives, Gina and Pauline were grateful to be happy, healthy, and legally recognized as a family.
When Lily was finally born, Pauline, as Lily’s biological mother, was able to take 12 weeks of paid leave to care for Lily – much like mothers across the country do every day.
But as many new parents know, those 12 weeks go by quickly. Lily wasn’t nearly ready for daycare, and as two working Moms — Gina works for the New York state court system and Pauline is a music publisher – they were facing difficult decisions just as all new parents must.
Knowing that she hadn’t yet had the chance to spend time watching their baby grow and develop and caring for her, and since Gina, a lawyer, knew her options under the expanded FMLA coverage, she applied to take federal unpaid child care leave to care for Lily.
Unlike most opposite-sex couples, who have less trouble accessing these programs and services, Gina was asked for a note from Lily’s pediatrician saying that she should be able to take time off to care for her daughter. The FMLA expansion that our community secured in 2010 ensured that Lily never lacked the love and nurturing of both her parents could provide.
Because of Gina’s background in the law she was prepared for the amount of advocacy she would need to do on her own behalf to access this coverage – and Lily benefited from Gina’s knowledge and experience.
This is a common experience for many LGBT parents, whether at the doctor’s office or at their child’s school, but not all families are as informed about the law or as prepared to take on this added burden of explaining to schools, doctors, and employers about the vagaries of the legal ties many of us have to our children.
Fortunately, Gina’s workplace was a welcoming one and once the HR department confirmed that Gina was eligible as a parent standing in loco parentis to take leave to care for Lily, and she was able to get the time off she needed.
While Gina, Pauline, & Lily’s story has a happy ending, and baby Lily was never denied having loving mothers when she needed them most, many families have been denied this vital protection.
Where do we go from here?
Many parents are unaware that this coverage exists and not all of these stories are as cut and dry.
Mothers and fathers all over the United States should be able to care for their families in their most vulnerable times without endangering their job. Because of FMLA – and specifically the inclusion of our families in it – many parents who are LGBT are covered, and can focus on the important task of caring for their family.
We are looking forward to building on our successes and to ensuring that our families are completely protected and included. However, there are still important changes to be made. Right now, same-sex spouses/partners are not currently covered under FMLA, in part because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). We are continuing to work with the Obama administration and our organizational partners to make sure this law includes us completely. We support the Family and Medical Leave Inclusion Act, which would expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to permit an employee to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave from work to care for their same-sex spouse/partner with a serious health condition.
We also support the Healthy Families Act, a bill that would provide paid sick leave for all workers to care for their families, including LGBT parents and same-sex spouses/partners.
For more information on these issues, please visit our the Family Equality Council’s Advocacy Center.
Emily Hecht-McGowan is the Director of Public Policy for Family Equality Council. She previously served as the Legal Director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network where she assisted service members impacted by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and related forms of discrimination. Prior to her time with SLDN, Emily was the Assistant Section Director for the American Bar Association’s Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities where she spearheaded the ABA’s civil rights, human rights and social justice policy work. Emily holds a BA in History from American University and a JD from the Columbus School of Law. She lives in Takoma Park, MD with her wife Sharon and their daughter Sadie and their trusty beagle, Ellie.
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