To Be Effective, Family Leave Should Be Flexible

FOR millions of American families, the conflicts between work and family are unavoidable. Congress is currently struggling with the question of how best to help these families cope with them. One proposal before Congress, the Family and Medical Leave Act, would establish an unprecedented federal mandate that prescribes new, unearned employee benefits along with complex federal rules and regulations.

Another, more realistic approach focuses on protection of employee seniority, earned benefits, and accrued pay status and offers greater flexibility to both employees and employers.

The latter approach is embodied in the American Family Protection Act. It provides up to six years of leave for parents to bond with children and up to two years to care for seriously ill elderly relatives, children, or close family members. The differences between this legislation and other approaches warrant analysis.

As designed, federally prescribed mandates are inflexible, ineffective, and discriminatory in impact. Here are the facts:

* "Bonding" is the interaction between parent and child that begins immediately after birth and foreshadows the infant's later socio-emotional development. Without this post-birth intimacy, many children are at high risk of developmental difficulty. Facilitating this bonding must be a central objective of any legislation in this area.

According to the experts, the first four to six months are critical in this bonding process. More precisely, they note, bonding is a continuous process lasting years. By any standard, the 12 weeks allowed in the Family and Medical Leave Act are not enough.

* Providing job protection for individuals who must care for seriously ill children, elderly parents, or close family members is another objective of national legislation. But, by definition, a serious illness is one that may not run its course within the allowed 12-week period.

* Mandated benefits are not free. Accepting this reality, proponents of that approach exempt from coverage small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. But this would make almost 50 percent of the nation's working parents - those whose employers are least likely to have their own leave programs - ineligible for bonding or medical-emergency benefits. A mandated benefit, therefore, has a discriminatory impact.

Because The American Family Protection Act does not establish new mandated benefits but preserves those already in effect, there is no need to exempt small employers, who include about 95 percent of all US employers. Instead of an inflexible federal mandate, parents would be free to choose the length of time right for their circumstances.

How does the American Family Protection Act work?

For example, Mary Smith is free to spend more time with her newborn - as much as six years. When she decides to return to work, she would simply apply for reemployment. If the same or similar job is available, the employer must rehire her. If the same or similar job is not then available, the employer is obligated to notify Mary of such an opening for up to a year later.

This concept of preferred rehire has been successfully used to assist veterans of the armed forces seeking reentry into the civilian labor force.

It doesn't make sense to mandate a new employee benefit that will impose unprecedented obligations and new costs on employers, particularly when the trade-offs necessary to make the costs bearable render the benefit inadequate to fulfill its purpose. This mandate makes even less sense when it exempts almost half of the labor force.

But, even more important, families deserve the right to choose. Congress can help families the most by giving them options, and that is precisely what the American Family Protection Act does.

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