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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOANNA WEISS

Time to expand the Family Medical Leave Act

As we gear up for tonight’s State of the Union Address — in which the president is expected to be combative, and Republicans are expected to reject every syllable he utters — here’s a fact worth chewing on: Two decades ago, the Family Medical Leave Act passed with bipartisan support.

Yes, there was some opposition to the modest idea behind the bill: that workers should be able to recover from major illnesses, help ill relatives, or care for new babies without fear of losing their jobs. Groups like the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Realtors firmly predicted that American business would grind to a screeching halt.

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But within the halls of Congress 20 years ago last week, common sense prevailed, for reasons that actually go to the heart of conservatism.

“A lot of Republicans at the time said, ‘We need families to be strong, and they need to be able to not abandon a loved one in a time of need,’ ” said Ellen Bravo, a grassroots activist who lobbied for nine years for the bill’s passage, and now leads a multistate coalition trying to expand the law.

Expansion is well overdue; the FMLA still doesn’t cover about 40 percent of American workers, who work part-time or for businesses with fewer than 50 employees, or who haven’t held their jobs for at least a year. Many eligible workers don’t take full advantage of it, because they can’t afford to take unpaid time off.

A recent Department of Labor survey found that 16 percent of American workers used family medical leave in the past year: 57 percent because they were sick, and 22 percent to care for seriously ill children, spouses, or parents. Forty percent of those leaves lasted 10 days or less. Women with new babies stayed home an average of 58 days — substantially less than three months.

And the FMLA doesn’t cover routine illnesses, so many people choose to go to work as flu vectors, rather than risk losing the paychecks that feed their kids.

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This is the ultimate collision of responsibilities — the need to earn a living, and the need to take care of your family. (To drive in the point, Bravo’s coalition is called Family Values @ Work.) Given the demographic bubble that’s approaching — a Boomer generation that will eventually need elder care — expanded leave should now be a bigger priority than ever.

But Bravo doesn’t seem particularly hopeful for change on the federal level. “Things became much more partisan in Washington, as you know,” she said, “and it became difficult to get Republicans to sign on.”

Um, yes, we know, and we know how it goes, from the standpoint of Washington rhetoric: Any talk of paid leave sounds like “entitlement,” which sounds like dreaded European-style socialism. Any heart-wrenching personal story — about people grateful that they could spend time with sick or dying children, or shuttle their parents to doctors’ appointments — is something that happened to somebody else. The US Chamber of Commerce has lately suggested that sick leave is merely an invitation to fraud.

But as Bravo points out, paid leave polls extremely well, across all demographics; in one 2010 poll from the University of Chicago, 86 percent of Americans supported paid sick days. Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, said he works with many companies that already offer more than the government does; they understand that paid leave is good for retention and loyalty. In Massachusetts, one of the leading champions of a paid sick leave bill is state Senator Dan Wolf, a cofounder of Cape Air.

A handful of states have passed paid sick leave laws, often tied to worker’s compensation or disability insurance programs or funded by a small payroll tax. In every case, the sky has failed to fall. This year, US Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa plans to introduce a federal bill that would require employers to let workers earn paid time off, for illness or to care for sick children or parents.

Given the fear of sequestration and the political capital required for gun control, few are guessing Harkin’s bill will be a top priority. Besides, we’re so used to knee-jerk disagreement that it’s hard even to imagine common ground. But on this one, most Americans actually agree. Why not make it official, for once?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannnaWeiss.

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