25 Years After the Family & Medical Leave Act: Why Every Workplace Should Offer Paid Parental Leave

When Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993, it was the first in a series of actions that recognized the changing face of America’s labor force. The legislation mandated that employers provide their employees up to 12 weeks per year of unpaid leave to care for personal illness, seriously ill family members or to bond with a new child. Under the FMLA, an employee’s job was protected, ensuring that she wouldn’t lose her position if she needed to take time to care for her family. The passage of the FMLA signaled that as a family evolved, businesses would be expected to change, too. Today, while we celebrate and reflect on 25 years of the FMLA, we need to look forward to our next step: paid parental leave.

Today, the majority of mothers and fathers are working and are more likely to be caring for their children and aging parents at the same time. Many women and men are still unable to utilize FMLA, simply because they can’t afford to take unpaid leave. And, research has shown that the special time after childbirth, during which mothers and fathers bond with their newborns, is critical to a child’s development. this time helps families become in-tune with their babies needs which builds critical neural connections that support the development of communication and social skills. Providing parents the time to bond with their newborns to have this special time with newborns is integral to closing the 30 million word gap. To support our families, we must make paid leave a reality.

In 2016, the City introduced our paid parental leave policy, making us among the first cities in the nation to do so. Earlier that year, my education advisor, Julie Holland, and I attended a screening of The Raising of America hosted by Communities Creating Opportunity (CCO). The documentary made me aware of the critical connection between paid leave and early childhood health. Since taking office, I personally hadn’t dealt with the City’s parental leave policy, as my children were already adults. However, my then-Director of Communications and current Chief of Staff Joni Wickham, had recently taken leave after giving birth to a beautiful baby girl. When she took time off to care for her newborn, she, like many others, did so without pay, having to utilize vacation or sick time she had saved up. The City employs over 4,300 people of different education levels, skill sets, and income levels. For many, unpaid leave wasn’t an option. It was clear to me that in order for the City to talk the talk and walk the walk, I needed to advocate for a paid parental leave policy.  

Soon after, I began working with the City Manager’s Office. Our Office of Performance Management surveyed employees about the City’s work culture, and the feedback was fervently in favor of having paid leave. We were soon able to roll out a comprehensive paid leave policy in May 2016, offering employees six weeks, and up to eight in serious circumstances, of paid leave at 100% wage replacement. And this year, I’m proud to report that we’ll be adding a seventh week of paid leave. City employees, who had been unable to take leave before, would now be able to, fostering a culture that put the health of employees and their families first. Our employees are our most valuable asset. When they thrive, the City thrives, and when the City thrives, the Kansas City community thrives.

If we want to give our children a fighting chance, we have to support their mothers and fathers. It’s in our community’s interest to keep our citizens happy and cultivate a talented workforce for years to come. In Kansas City, we’re lucky that the City and many other workplaces and organizations recognize this. The Women’s Foundation and the Society of Human Resource Management of Greater Kansas City collaborated to bring the When Work Works Initiative to Kansas City, which recognizes workplaces that make paid leave a priority, like Lockton Companies and McCown Gordon Construction. They demonstrate that change is possible, and it’s happening in our community.

Today, my Chief of Staff took our message to Congress during a roundtable discussion with the Committee on Education and Workforce. Joni told members that inaction at the state and federal level led to our prioritization of paid leave on the local level. I’m extremely proud that our efforts here in Kansas City has led to momentum in other cities on both side of the state lines, in the halls of our State Capitol, and have captured the attention of Congress. Now let’s work to make sure all mothers and fathers, no matter what city they live in, are able to benefit from paid parental leave policies.

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