COPENHAGEN — Fancy taking a year's paid leave from work to study, be with your children, or just lie on the couch and read novels?
The dream has become reality in Denmark. At the end of 1994, almost 80,000 Danes (four times the projected number) were enjoying a new leave-from-work program designed to promote job-sharing and cut unemployment.
Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, a pragmatic Social Democrat who introduced the plan, often talks of a future society where people can tailor their own lives by mixing work, education, and parental duties according to personal needs.
The one-year program establishes the right to take 12 months of educational, parental, or sabbatical leave. In theory, each worker taking leave should be replaced by an unemployed person. The state pays the leave-taker between 70 percent and 100 percent of Denmark's maximum unemployment-benefit allowance of about $350 a week before taxes. The substitute gets real wages and job experience.
But the government's center-right opposition party - as well as employers - say the program is causing bottlenecks in the labor market and threatens to fuel inflation.
One problem is that many leave-takers, particularly those in the private sector, are not being replaced. Flemming Frandsen, a Labor Market Board spokesman, says employers appear to have replaced little more than half of the leave-takers. Economists estimate this means extra costs for the state of $3.5 million for every 1,000 people on leave.
The scheme has brought political gains for the government by cutting the jobless total, as leave-takers are removed from the unemployment statistics.The unemployed are also eligible to join the educational and parental-leave programs. It is attractive for them to do so, as it extends the period during which they can draw full unemployment benefits. More than 40 percent of current leave-takers are unemployed.
The program's problems were highlighted when 4,800 of Denmark's 45,000 nurses rushed to take parental leave.
The program is popular with other workers, too. Bus drivers, office workers, and garbage collectors have introduced job rotation under which, for example, 30 workers share 24 jobs. Each worker gets every fourth week off, with most of the income loss covered by the sabbatical-leave program.