WASHINGTON — Three decades after Bill Clinton signed the nation’s family and medical leave law, he was back at the White House on Thursday to hold forth on what it’s meant to the country, unspooling his trademark blend of storytelling and wonkiness.
The 42nd president, now more than two decades out of office, seemed a little rusty at first, fumbling through the papers on the lectern to find his remarks. But then he found his stride and was soon dropping names, citing statistics and spinning yarns about the families whose lives have been affected by the law.
“We need more stories,” he declared. “Not process. Stories.”
Clinton spoke just days before Sunday's 30th anniversary of his landmark Family and Medical Leave Act legislation and made the case for Congress to get behind President Joe Biden's push to go further and get paid leave etched into federal law.
The bill Clinton signed guaranteed many American workers up to 12 unpaid weeks off to recover from major illness or childbirth or to take care of sick family members, one of the biggest legislative achievements of his eight years in office. But Clinton, who signed the law just two weeks into his presidency, said it was past time to go further and give U.S. workers paid leave to bond with a new child or care for their loved ones.
“There are still a lot of problems that cannot be solved without some form of paid leave,” Clinton said.
Clinton paid tribute to former Sen. Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who pushed for the legislation for years. He paraphrased the German sociologist Max Weber, who called “politics the strong and slow boring of hardboards” as he expressed awe for lawmakers who pushed through the legislation, many of whom attended Thursday's event.
“After all these years, I still have more people mention the family leave act to me than any other specific thing I did" as president, Clinton said.
Biden championed but failed to win support for paid leave for workers in 2021. On Thursday, he signed a memorandum that calls on heads of federal agencies to support access to unpaid family and medical leave for federal workers in their first year on the job. Workers aren't entitled to unpaid leave under the law until they've been employed for a year.
The president is also directing the Office of Personnel Management to provide recommendations on developing policies so workers can get paid and unpaid leave to seek safety or recover from domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking. Such situations are not covered by the family leave law.
Early in 2021, Biden proposed vastly expanding the family leave law to give workers up to 12 weeks of paid parental, family and personal illness leave and to ensure workers get three days of bereavement leave per year as part of a massive $3.5 trillion social spending plan.
His plan called for providing workers up to $4,000 a month, with a minimum of two-thirds of average weekly wages replaced. The White House estimated the program would cost more than $225 billion over a decade.
Paid family leave didn't make it into the slimmed-down climate and health care legislation that Biden signed into law in August.
Biden on Thursday said he wasn’t giving up on winning paid leave.
“No American should ever have to choose between a paycheck and taking care of a family member or taking care of themselves,” said Biden, who noted that the United States was one of the only industrialized nations not to provide some form of paid leave to workers.
Clinton, who was enthusiastically greeted by veteran lawmakers and White House staff, recalled stories of the enormous impact the family leave act has had on Americans.
He said that on a flight soon after leaving office in 2001, he was approached by a flight attendant who told him she was ambivalent about his time in office, but she wanted him to know the law was crucial for her family when both of her parents faced end-of-life illnesses at the same time. She said she couldn't have been there for her parents at the end of their lives if not for the job protections provided by the legislation, he recalled.
“I just wanted to tell you, I’ve heard all these politicians give speeches about family values,” Clinton said the woman told him. He added, "She said, 'I know ... how your parents' die is an important family value.' It was breathtaking."
A group of Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday announced they were reintroducing legislation to establish paid family leave and other updates to the law.
But passing legislation to establish paid leave program will be an uphill climb for Biden with Republicans now in control of the House. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has been pushing for updating the federal law, said that she's engaged Republican lawmakers on the issue.
“We are going to find what common ground exists in both the House and Senate and see if there’s some measure of paid leave that can be done with the Republican House,” she said. “I’m optimistic that there’s something we can do together. I just don’t know what it is yet.”
The current federal leave law doesn't apply to a huge swath of the U.S. work force.
About 44% of workers are not eligible for FMLA-supported leave because they work for small employers exempt from the law, do not work enough hours or have not worked for their employer long enough to be eligible or both, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, a group advocating for updating the law. Nearly 15 million workers used FMLA in 2022, according to the group.