Twenty-five years ago this week, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law. Since that time, this Act has helped tens of thousands of families by protecting their jobs when they need an extended absence due to medical or family circumstances. New parents and ailing parents, children, husbands, wives, and service members have all benefited from the FMLA which has allowed countless people the time to bond with infants or care for family members without fear of losing their jobs or health benefits.

There is truly much to celebrate as we mark the 25th anniversary of the FMLA. But it should go without saying that we can do even better. Although the FMLA has provided vital protections to over half the American workforce, there are still far too many left out, including our fellow Montanans.

Right now, the FMLA only applies to employees who work where there are at least 50 other employees within 75 miles. In Montana, we celebrate our small business owners, so let’s give those with 20 workers or more the opportunity to offer these benefits to their workforce.

And let’s reduce the number of hours of work required for eligibility. Many excellent employees only work part-time, but they have done so for years and their loyalty and contributions to our economy should guarantee them the same protections as full-time employees.

Furthermore, while many employees do receive some pay while taking FMLA, many do not. Workplaces with collective bargaining opportunities often allow for longer leaves or the ability to use other forms of paid leave, but too many Montana workers do not have collective bargaining rights. It is our working families that most frequently do not receive any paid leave, and they are the ones who can least afford to go without a paycheck. Despite the excellent intentions of the FMLA, it often imposes severe financial burdens on families, especially women, and is not used.

The truth is that women are the ones most often in need of leave, but they are also the ones who most often do not take it. Women are typically the ones who stay home with an infant, aging parents, or children who are ill. But women are too frequently the least likely to be able to access the provisions of the FMLA, either because of workplace conditions or financial concerns. Let’s show that we acknowledge and value the contributions Montana women make both inside and outside the home.

Ultimately, this is an issue that affects all working Montanans. We need to ensure that every eligible Montana worker and their employers are educated about the provisions and guarantees under the Family and Medical Leave Act. And we need to ensure that more of our small business owners and workers have the opportunity to benefit from family leave. A paid leave insurance program would help small business employers provide leave without an undue financial burden and it would allow employees to access the benefits that every working family has earned.

As Montanans, we know that all of us get ahead when our workers are able to care for and support their families without fear of losing their job or benefits.

We have a lot to celebrate as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Now, let’s move forward together to protect even more of our friends, neighbors, and families and strengthen the benefits working Montanans deserve.

Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, represents House District 82 in the Montana Legislature. 

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