The family-leave law, and beyond

Six years ago tomorrow, a collective sigh of relief echoed across the United States as the first family-leave law finally took effect. After nine years of struggle and revision in Congress, the bill granted 12 weeks of unpaid leave to workers in companies with 50 or more employees. No longer could a worker get fired for taking time off to care for a new baby or a seriously ill family member.

Some business groups predicted disaster. Calculators in hand, the US Chamber of Commerce warned that the Family and Medical Leave Act would cost employers $2.6 billion a year in administrative expenses and temporary replacement workers.

Today those fears have proved largely unfounded. "The costs have never been anything like that," says Donna Lenhoff, general counsel of the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington. She notes that in one recent survey of companies with more than 100 employees, the vast majority - 84 percent - report that the benefits of providing family and medical leave offset or outweigh the costs.

Already an estimated 20 million workers have used the law to take time off for family needs. But no one knows how many other employees, especially those in low- and moderate-income families, have had to forgo needed leave because they couldn't afford to lose a paycheck. The bipartisan Family Leave Commission reports that nearly 1 worker in 10 who take family or medical leave is forced onto public assistance during that time.

And then there are the workers in small companies not covered by the law. One by one, they must negotiate their own arrangements, hoping for a compassionate boss.

No wonder some family advocates say the time has come for Stage 2 - a push for paid leave. This summer the National Partnership is launching a campaign for family-leave income. The group hopes to create a "new national movement," drawing on a network of lawmakers, researchers, activists, and business leaders to develop leave policies that work for everyone.

"We are encouraging all kinds of state experimentation," says Ms. Lenhoff. Already, controversial proposals exist in several states that would allow people to collect unemployment compensation during their leave.

In another innovative move, Gov. Gray Davis of California signed a bill late last month that lets residents use some of their own paid sick leave to care for ill family members. It also prohibits employers from discriminating against workers who use sick leave in this way. The law takes effect Jan. 1.

Like other late-20th-century social issues, family leave is a subject making headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. In December parental leave will be introduced in Britain. It would allow all employees three months' leave for the birth or adoption of a child. This comes in addition to existing paid maternity leave.

Some British business leaders warn that this extended leave could make managers reluctant to hire women of childbearing age. One opponent of the measure told government officials that it might "harm young women's employment opportunities." Employers' organizations also claim it will put an "unsustainable cost" on business.

In both countries, paid family leave will be a hard sell to many employers, who see it only in terms of a bottom-line drain. And even progressive laws can't always change hidebound corporate cultures. Many women, including those in executive positions, still find themselves rushing back to work after giving birth, afraid they'll lose their place in line or jeopardize their position if they take the full 12 weeks allotted by law.

Equally troubling, many men simply don't take leave at all, partly out of fear of workplace hostility. Yet sociological studies show that the more parental leave a father takes after a baby is born, the more he is likely to stay involved in that child's life later.

Paid or unpaid, family leave remains only one way for employees to benefit. More part-time jobs, more shared jobs, and more flexible schedules would also offer tangible, long-term support to frazzled workers. In the long run, the most "unsustainable cost" is the one borne by families denied the presence of a nurturing parent or caregiver when they need it most.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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