Congress enters debate over time off for family care

When Irene Natividad was having her first child, she says, ``I had to use my accrued sick time and vacation time in order to get a leave from work.'' Her husband had to do the same thing to help her out. ``What if I hadn't earned enough vacation time?'' she asks earnestly.

Now leader of the National Women's Political Caucus in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Natividad considers herself a victim of lack - the absence of a ``sane family leave policy'' - and is lobbying hard for a national leave proposal in Congress.

Cosponsored by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, the Parental and Medical Leave Act would require employers to grant employees - both men and women - up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave upon the birth or adoption of a child, or the serious illness of a child, dependent parent, or the employees themselves. It would guarantee their job when they returned.

Very few companies have developed parental leave programs on their own, Mrs. Natividad says. ``Those that have it are doing it on an uneven basis.''

By the year 2000, however, women will make up almost half the work force in the United States, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections. Almost 60 percent of these women will have young children, and a growing number will have elderly relatives under their care.

Despite this dramatic shift in the work force, most companies have retained employee policies that are still geared to working men, or to women with no families. The US remains the only industrialized country that does not protect employees from losing their jobs when they must take time off to have babies, take care of sick children, or assist elderly relatives, says the Women's Legal Defense Fund, a Washington lobby group.

No states have mandated paid maternity leave. Only about a dozen have unpaid maternal leave laws.

``The closest we've come to having any type of paid leave is in California, which uses a combination of statutes,'' explains Donna Lenhoff, associate director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund.

``We need to have employers shift some of the responsibility they're willing to take,'' says Julie Devaud, a public-policy specialist at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a Washington-based interest group. ``Eventually employers will have no choice.''

As resentment grows against company rules that force parents to choose between their job and caring for a family member, however, opposition to leave laws coalesces.

The US Chamber of Commerce and a number of small-business organizations contend that such a program is too expensive for most American companies, and that it is not up to Congress to dictate to private firms what their employee policies should be.

The Chamber of Commerce initially estimated the Parental and Medical Leave Act could cost American businesses roughly $16 billion a year, assuming it were fully used by all those eligible, says Virginia Thomas, a labor relations lawyer at the chamber.

The $2.6 billion figure it presented to Congress, Mrs. Thomas says, is the lowest possible estimate.

The National Federation of Independent Business - one of several business associations opposing the bill - agrees that it's an expensive program. ``It takes away [individual companies'] flexibility to negotiate with their employees,'' says Terry Hill at the federation's Washington office. Business groups say Congress doesn't know the needs of employees, nor does it understand what individual companies can afford.

``If these companies were forced to offer maternity leave,'' says William Even, assistant professor of economics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, ``they may try to offset these costs by not hiring women, or lowering salary or benefits.''

Dr. Even, who designed a study examining what would increase the likelihood of companies using maternity leave without legislation, believes companies will begin to discriminate against women once they find out how expensive a maternity leave policy is.

But the proposed legislation ``is for all family members,'' Ms. Lenhoff at the Women's Legal Defense Fund points out. Because it's such a broad bill, she says, discrimination cannot be directed at women.

``A good many of the people who are in there testifying are fathers,'' she adds.

``We've found that the people who are being discriminated against now are elderly men who are likely to take time off due to illness,'' says Ms. Devaud at the AAUW.

According to Even's study, whether or not actual discrimination occurs will depend on a company's ability to find a temporary replacement during leave. Where this is a lot more difficult - as in small, nonunionized companies and at businesses in which leave-takers are in hard-to-replace positions - there will be more chance for discrimination. Or companies will simply refuse to adopt maternity leave guarantees.

Proponents emphasize that parental leave will cost a lot less than what it now costs a company to hire and train new employees. Whatever the cost, however, paternal leave is necessary, they say.

``It's a question of employer flexibility,'' Devaud says. ``We need to force employers to recognize the drastic changes in the workplace.''

Organizations that can adapt to these changes will prosper, she adds; otherwise, they won't be able to recruit and train skilled women.

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