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The Family and Medical Leave Act 20 years later: Time for an expansion

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law.
Photo by: Boris Roessler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Photo by: Boris Roessler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law. The act allows workers to take an unpaid leave of absence in order to devote their time to personal matters that may extend throughout their immediate family. But still, 20 years later, advocates say the act does not do enough.

Executive Director Ellen Bravo of Family Values @ Work joined msnbc host Melissa Harris-Perry on Sunday to discuss FMLA and to examine how Americans have been faring under its provisions.

"I know that men and women are more productive when they are sure they won't lose their jobs because they are trying to be good parents and good children. Our businesses should not lose the services of these dedicated Americans. " - President Clinton, 1993

Millions of Americans took advantage of the law since its passing; families were able to assuage many fears they had regarding job security after they requested temporary leave--some of the personal situations that are associated with FMLA include pregnancy, ailing health, and care of a spouse. However, despite the millions who are able to apply leave protection to their lives, there are many that the law fails to cover. "For every five people who needed leave and took it, there were 2 people who needed leave and didn't take it," said Bravo as she explained how most people are ineligible due to the type of company they work for, or that they simply can't afford to go without pay for an extended period of time.

Through the efforts of her organization and with the help of diverse coalitions, Bravo is urging further reform to eliminate minor stipulations and to extend FMLA to be more inclusive when defining eligible parties. Currently the act includes care for parents and children, but does not extend to cover grandparents, siblings, or same-sex partners.

Harris-Perry noted the challenges that stand in the way of extending the law. At the time of its original passing, 163 congressmen in the House that voted against it, and currently nineteen of those House members--all white men--are still in their role. Bravo was assured that although this law does disproportionately affect women and people of color, the diverse coalitions include many who advocate such varied agendas that their influence is strong enough to make a significant impact on those in the House.

Still, with each passing day millions of Americans are unable to access benefits of FMLA and they or their loved ones are suffering because it. "Laws aren't monuments, they are meant to change," said Bravo as she referenced words spoken by former President Clinton.

Bravo's only frustration reflects the work left to be done, but does not disregard the positive changes that have already been made. For example, during the Obama administration, amendments have been added to include military families more extensively. However, more action is desired. Bravo stated plainly, "We're a better nation than this." She hopes for swift reform with the help of her coalitions across the country. "By winning cities and states we're going to lay the basis for new national legislation."

See more of our conversation below.