Family Leave - at Last

FINALLY. Eight years after the Family and Medical Leave Act was first introduced in Congress, its supporters have reason to celebrate. With a flourish of his presidential pen, President Clinton signed into law a pro-family bill that President Bush twice vetoed. To employers the president has said, in effect: Families need your help. At the same time, he has delivered a reassuring message to many working parents: Having a baby won't cost you your job.

The law, which allows workers to take up to three months of unpaid leave for family needs, helps put the United States in league with other industrial nations. By calling for parental leave rather than maternity leave, it recognizes that fathers are parents too. And by permitting time off to care for family members who are ill, it prevents employees from having to choose between short-term care-giving and a career.

Not surprisingly, business groups resisted this bill, arguing that its provisions would be too costly. Yet over the years the legislation has been watered down considerably. Instead of allowing workers to take 18 weeks of parental leave and 26 weeks of medical leave, as originally outlined, the law calls for just 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt. That excludes 95 percent of US businesses and 60 percent of all workers.

Many executives object to having government "mandate" benefits. No one wants the long shadow of Uncle Sam lurking as an ominous presence in the boardroom. But in the same way that laws regulating child labor, maximum hours, and equal pay have come to be regarded as practical, family leave can be viewed not as a threat from government but as a fair way of treating employees.

Whatever short-term expense or inconvenience businesses incur should be offset by the long-term investment in stronger families, higher morale, and lower turnover. Acknowledging that work and family are inseparable parts of an employee's life - and integrating them into a more harmonious whole - can benefit everyone. Call it a bargain, whatever its relatively modest cost.

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