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Three decades after the FMLA became law, caregiving responsibilities still knock women out of the workforce

by Xanthe Scharff February 3, 2023

Thirty years ago, on Feb. 5, 1993, President Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work when they or a family member are seriously ill, and to care for a new child without fear of losing their jobs.

To be sure, the landmark legislation was a victory for women, who carry a disproportionate share of the family caregiving responsibilities. When children are home from school or elderly parents need care, it is most often women who leave the workforce to do this unpaid work.

President Biden on Thursday acknowledged the anniversary and admitted the law had not gone far enough. He vowed to fight for a nationwide law guaranteeing paid leave. “It’s about being a country where women and all people can both work and raise a family,” Biden said.  “How can we compete in a global economy if millions of American parents, especially moms, can’t join the workforce?”

Indeed, our reporting at The Fuller Project shows that, three decades after FMLA became law, caregiving responsibilities still knock women out of the workforce more often than men.

As the first outbreak of COVID shut down schools and workplaces across the country early in 2020, unemployment claim statistics obtained by The Fuller Project showed an alarming trend: Women had lost their jobs in record numbers, an estimated 13 to 35 percentage points above the norm in the 17 states we studied.

More than a dozen news outlets sourced our data, driving national headlines as lawmakers debated how to allocate trillions of dollars of pandemic aid. Ultimately, the relief package addressed caregiving. But our reporting also underscored a key shortcoming in how we make policy: All too often, the data collected and analyzed by the government fails to account for different experiences of women.

Changing how we collect and disseminate unemployment data is a good starting point. To make effective policy decisions, we need to understand why people become unemployed. We need weekly data from every state that allows for analysis of multiple data points and that includes other vital data, such as whether the person who filed for unemployment receives child support and whether the claimant was forced to leave a job because of a lack of childcare.

For example, our reporting shows that even as the pandemic wanes, women in New York are finding it harder than men to reenter the workforce, once again due to a lack of access to childcare. If we know that a lack of childcare is driving a disproportionate number of women from the workforce, governments can allocate resources to solve that problem.

Three decades after the Family and Medical Leave Act acknowledged the impact of caregiving on our workforce, women still sit on the economic precipice, one illness or childcare crisis away from unemployment.

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