SENATE majority leader George Mitchell wasted little time in reintroducing the family and medical leave bill President Bush vetoed last year. The legislation would require employers to give workers 10 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new baby or a sick relative. The bill offers one of the least costly and most cost-effective ways of helping families. It would require no money from the federal government. The primary expense for businesses would be in hiring a temporary replacement, or in continuing an employee's health insurance during the leave. Even these outlays are modest compared with the alternative of losing a trained worker. Organizations representing small businesses have objected to the legislation, but the bill specifically exempts firms with fewer than 50 workers.
Critics argue that unpaid leave is an elitist benefit, since many lower-paid employees cannot afford to miss even a few paychecks. But for Americans caught in a squeeze play between their bosses and their babies, the family and medical leave bill represents an important beginning.
Critics also say the legislation encroaches on territory that should be reserved for bargaining between employers and workers. Many companies in fact already include some form of family leave in their benefits packages. The federal legislation sets a minimum standard. It would have little impact on most businesses and would put an issue of critical importance to families squarely on the nation's agenda.
The strength of the workplace depends in part on the strength and well-being of workers. Employees do not function in a vacuum, leaving their personal concerns at the factory gate or office door. Time spent caring for a newborn baby or a sick relative is not a luxury. Rather than being punished, parents and caregivers should be rewarded with the peace of mind that comes from knowing their family responsibilities will not jeopardize their jobs.
The new family and medical leave bill warrants the same kind of support from Congress that it received last year. This time, it also deserves the signature of President Bush.