Pitfalls of the Family Medical Leave Act

Under the Family Medical Leave Act, new parents are supposed to be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and still return to their job. But due to a few exceptions in the law, the number of employees that the act actually applies to may surprise some.

Melody Vaccaro says parenthood is full of surprises.

"I had all these fantasies about maternity leave like, we'd go on little walks we'd go up to the mill and I'd push his little stroller," Vaccaro said.

But her expectations changed quickly.

"I would just sit with him. We never left the couch. "

Like many working parents, the hardest part is saying goodbye for the first time.

"My mom was like pushing me out the door,” Vaccaro recalls. “Go to work! I'm like tearing up right now, but it was really hard. It was really hard."

"I mean it's hard every time, but for sure the first time," Nick Vaccaro agrees.

Under FMLA, moms and dads like the Vaccaros can take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave before returning to their jobs. While this is a federal rule, it doesn’t apply to all employees.

Two of the exceptions are:

  • Employees must have worked a little more than half a year at least at their current company, and
  • the company must have a minimum of 50 employees before they are required to follow the rule.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 56% of private sector employees work for a company in the U.S. that has 50 or more employees.

Employment Discrimination Attorney Kathleen Neary, has spent nearly 20 years practicing employment discrimination law in Lincoln, Nebraska.

"It's heartbreaking when I have to tell these new moms and new dads that they don't have anything that will protect their job and they're at the mercy of their employer," Neary said.

She says most companies that do not qualify under FMLA still do not provide much if any parental leave. And without a new law, Neary says that likely won’t change. But, with parental leave becoming more of a topic nationally, more companies are offering benefits, particularly tech companies.

Melody Vaccaro has been working at Zillow for many years. This year the company rolled out a new benefits plan. Now, new mothers can take 16 weeks of fully paid leave and new fathers can take 8 weeks.

"It really feels like you're valued as a human being," Vaccaro said.
She says she would be surprised to find a firm more family friendly. "It would take a lot."

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