Support for Parents

WHEN, amid great fanfare, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act last August, advocates for the family heralded the measure as the dawn of a new day for working parents. By guaranteeing up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to mothers and fathers after the birth or adoption of a child, the law assured employees that they would not have to risk losing their jobs to care for their children.

But early evidence on the eve of the law's first anniversary this Friday suggests that it has not been the panacea supporters hoped it would be. A national survey being released this week by 9 to 5, an association of working women, finds that 63 percent of more than 300 respondents faced problems with employers when they asked for time off under the act, even though they were eventually granted a leave.

In another study being released this week in San Francisco, a majority of 50 Bay Area employers surveyed say that the family leave act has not influenced their corporate culture. Yet some of them acknowledge that the legislation has given more legitimacy to work and family issues and has generated more awareness and concern about family needs. The study was conducted by One Small Step, a coalition of Bay Area employers.

Finally, a survey just conducted by the Boston Globe reports that the law is little-used because parents cannot afford unpaid leave. It also notes that fathers tend to restrict their time off for newborns to a week or two of paid vacation - the same pattern that existed before the law was passed.

These findings should not be surprising. Cultural change comes slowly. It will take more than a year to alter deeply held corporate attitudes about families and to make it culturally acceptable for men to take parental leave.

The existence of the law, important as it is, should not lull anyone - supporters or detractors - into thinking that work and family conflicts have been resolved. The act's anniversary and these surveys are reminders that working families still need support from many quarters.

No solution will be simple or cheap, and for a while new families will have to settle for compromises. But both public and private sectors should devote imaginative and persistent efforts to developing strategies that will make it possible for parents to stay at home with infants during the early months. Can anybody - parent or not - think of many goals that deserve to take priority over a caring start for the next generation?

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