WHEN the National Women's Political Caucus met here last month for its biennial convention, not all the talk centered on politics. In workshops and in a special award ceremony recognizing American Telephone & Telegraph's innovative new family-benefits package, members emphasized the importance of late-1980s workplace issues such as child care and parental leave. Beginning January 1, employees of AT&T will be eligible for one year of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a newborn or adopted child. During the first six months of the leave, the company will also pay the premium for the employee's health benefits.
In addition, AT&T will reimburse eligible employees up to $2,000 for expenses associated with the adoption of a child. And workers who need to care for a seriously ill family member may take up to 12 months of unpaid leave within a two-year period.
``This is the first time the Caucus has given such awards,'' says Irene Natividad, the group's outgoing chairwoman.
``We hope our recognition of their effort will help spur other companies to adopt similar policies.''
The award comes at a time when progressive corporations are becoming increasingly aware of the value of family-oriented benefits in keeping morale high and turnover low. Their executives also recognize the bottom-line advantages.
Honeywell, for example, last year added subsidized care for sick children to its benefit options. In its first nine months, the program saved the company approximately $45,000 by enabling Minneapolis employees to work while their mildly sick children were cared for at home by a certified caregiver or at a special child-care center called ``Chicken Soup.''
Dick Green, the director of Honeywell's community programs who designed the child-care program, says he received ``considerable support'' from top executives. Other Minneapolis companies offering similar benefits include 3M and First Bank.
This fall, employers and working parents interested in family-related benefits will be focusing attention on Capitol Hill, where the Family and Medical Leave Act is expected to come up for a vote in the House.
The federal bill grants mothers and fathers 10 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted, or seriously ill child. Companies with fewer than 50 workers are exempt.
Supporters are optimistic that the bill will pass.
``Our vote count is strong, and well within striking range,'' says Andrea Camp, an aide to Rep. Pat Schroeder (D) of Colorado, who introduced the bill. ``At a time when Congress has no money to start new programs, and we're spending a lot of money already on the child care bill, this would be a way to meet family concerns without spending any tax money.''
Opponents of parental leave legislation, among them the Chamber of Commerce and many small businesses, charge that government should not mandate benefits.
These critics worry that requiring employers to provide unpaid parental leave might lead to requirements for paid parental leave and child care.
Yet a new report for the Family and Medical Leave Act Coalition claims that American families are losing at least $607 million a year in earnings when new mothers are unable to return to their former jobs because employers do not have parental-leave policies.
``When these new mothers without job-protected leaves return to work but are unable to return to their former jobs, they experience more unemployment and lower wages than those mothers who return after a period of protected leave,'' the report states.
As one solution, state legislatures are beginning to draft their own family and medical leave bills. This summer, New Jersey introduced parental leave legislation, providing for care of newborn and seriously ill children.
Similar legislation is pending in Pennsylvania. Already, state workers are entitled to six months of unpaid parental leave, plus up to 12 weeks of paid leave accrued from an employee's vacation time, personal time, and sick leave. The plan took effect last year.
``What we're doing now is trying to promote this option,'' says Elizabeth Beh, adviser to the governor on child-care policy. But she acknowledges the challenges single parents or low-wage employees face in taking unpaid leave. ``There are people who feel it's better for the child to have a parent at home during the very early months, but it's very difficult for them to do it, economically.''
One state employee currently on parental leave is Maureen Kordesh of Harrisburg, Pa., an attorney. She and her husband are parents of a 21/2-year-old daughter and 3-month-old twin sons.
``There's been a real shift in the consciousness of American people now,'' Mrs. Kordesh explains. ``We're beginning to realize, finally, that raising children is every bit as important as closing the big business deal, winning the big case, saving the patient.
``That's what these new parental-leave policies are formally recognizing - that the work of raising families is very important work, as much as any visible kind of career.''