An anniversary to celebrate

Itís hard to imagine that just two decades ago Americans did not have the ability to take time off to care for a sick family member or a newborn baby without fear of losing their job and medical benefits.

For me, that kind of security would have been life altering.

My daughter Jacinta was born with significant disabilities that left her medically fragile her entire life. In spite of her diagnosis she defied all odds for people with her condition and lived to the age of 27.

When Jacinta was young, her father took time off work to help care for her but he eventually lost his job. As any parent can imagine, the situation was a nightmare.

But there was one consolation that came out of my family's experience. Our struggle helped inspire Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd - since retired - to draft the Family and Medical Leave Act, legislation that ensured families in this kind of impossible circumstance could at least have a sense of security when it came to their employment situation and medical insurance.

The law requires that employers provide up to three months of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to employees who need to care for their child, attend to matters related to a new adoption and childbirth, care for an immediate family member who is seriously ill, or tend to their own serious health condition.

Critically, it requires that health benefits be maintained during the employee's leave and guarantees that their job is still there when they return.

When he first started pushing for the Family and Medical Leave Act, Sen. Dodd knew that the United States was well behind many other countries when it came to basic labor and medical rights. Indeed, 100 other countries around the globe had laws or policies on their books that gave workers and families these basic rights.

The law took years of hard work and determination to get through Congress and garner the president's signature. From 1986, when Sen. Dodd sponsored the original iteration of the bill until 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed it into law, Dodd was there to shepherd it along. His efforts fully matched the determination of families across the nation to be there for a loved one when it matters.

He knew full well the impact it could have on everyday Americans like me, which is why he never gave up - even after skepticism from conservatives and two vetoes from President George H.W. Bush. His work inspired others, like then-State Sen. John Larson (now U.S. Rep. Larson) who fought for passage of a state family leave law here in Connecticut - the first state to do so.

Decades later, empowered by the rights afforded them as a result of Sen. Dodd's Family and Medical Leave Act, many of Jacinta's relatives were able to take time off work to spend the precious last moments of her life with her. Jacinta deserved this protected time. Losing a child is the worst of heartaches. FMLA meant we would not also suffer a loss of employment in the time we needed to say goodbye to our cherished child.

Countless other families utilize those same rights today to ensure a sense of dignity and support for those they love. New mothers can actually enjoy maternity leave knowing their job will be there when they return. And recently, the law has been expanded to the families of our brave men and women returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week is the 20-year anniversary of the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, so we should all take a moment to reflect on its importance to families across the country. In this single act, Sen. Dodd and the lawmakers who supported his proposal protected the lives and hearts of untold millions of families living in our nation whose stories he could not forget nor deny. As Jacinta's mom, I will be forever grateful.

Eva Bunnell lives in East Haddam.


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