Help for Families

THE same day last week that the House passed a bill to give workers 12 weeks of unpaid family leave, a coalition of more than 100 businesses and private organizations announced a $25.4 million project to help employees care for children and older relatives. Although the timing of the two events was coincidental, the juxtaposition points up the value of both government and business involvement in family issues.

The family-leave bill guarantees full-time employees time off without pay to care for a baby or handle family medical emergencies. Companies with fewer than 50 workers are exempt, as are the highest-paid 10 percent of employees. The bill, similar to one President Bush vetoed two years ago, faces a likely veto in the Oval Office. The president opposes a government mandate for family leave. He has proposed a tax credit to companies that provide emergency leaves, but it would not guarantee protection to all


The private coalition's dependent-care plan, forged by 109 companies and 28 organizations, will finance 300 local programs in 44 cities. These include such initiatives as care on school holidays, in-home care for older people, and new child-care centers.

This ambitious collaborative shows the possibilities that exist when progressive managers support family-related programs. Yet even these innovative efforts address only some of those complex family needs - an after-school program here, a seminar on infant care there. Likewise, they deal only with responsibilities that can be delegated to other caregivers. By contrast, family leave acknowledges that some caregiving duties are best fulfilled by family members themselves.

In an ideal corporate world, employers would offer a range of family-related benefits. They would all voluntarily provide unpaid family leave too, making what Mr. Bush calls "mandates from Washington" unnecessary.

But idealism does not always meet the everyday needs of real people. Until corporate policies more fully reflect the changing American work force, a combination of public and private efforts may be necessary. Just as the business collaboration serves as a model for companies to emulate, the federal family-leave bill reminds executives that the bottom line cannot be the only way a company measures its success.

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