When Workers Double as Parents And Vice Versa

WHEN Tina Miller-Silverman, a flight attendant for USAir Shuttle, refused to work an extra shift last year because her 6-year-old son was suddenly ill, the airline fired her. Bad weather had caused flight delays, and managers needed overtime help. But Ms. Miller-Silverman faced a dilemma too: Her husband had already left for work, and their baby sitter couldn't stay longer.

Last month Miller-Silverman won a victory for herself and her family when an arbitration panel ruled that the firing was unfair. It ordered the airline to reinstate her, giving her back pay and restoring her seniority.

Her situation illustrates the classic tug between the legitimate needs of employers and the equally legitimate needs of working parents. It's also the kind of case that highlights the importance of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives workers unpaid, job-protected time off to care for a new baby or an ill family member.

This month marks the second anniversary of that measure. Early studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that the law is working well. Nearly half of companies responding to a Conference Board survey say it has improved employees' ability to handle family needs. And three-quarters of the Fortune 500 companies responding to another survey state that the law has had either no impact or a positive impact on their productivity. Almost a quarter also find it has enhanced employee morale.

But don't spend too much time celebrating - yet. Corporate America is making progress, but many companies still lack truly enlightened approaches. Politicians can pass laws, but they can't legislate the attitudes of managers or co-workers who resent having to take on additional work during a colleague's absence.

Resistance to such time off can be measured in part by the history of the law itself. The first congressional hearings on parental leave took place in the fall of 1985. Initially the measure called for 18 weeks of time off for family care-giving needs.

Over the years, as the bill slowly worked its way through Congress, those 18 weeks were cut back to 12. At the same time, restrictions increased. Companies with fewer than 50 employees are exempt, as are part-time workers and those who have been on the job less than a year.

Even with those limitations, no one can pretend that the law doesn't sometimes pose hardships for companies. A downsizing culture, with fewer employees left to do the work, can make it harder to redistribute work when someone takes a leave.

And despite the protection the law offers, some workers worry that they'll jeopardize their status by taking time off. In an age of rampant downsizing, many employees - with and without children - fear for their jobs. They hesitate to ask for special favors, however legitimate or urgent the reason.

Even when work-family programs exist on paper, management support for them may not. Although the law deliberately provides for parental leave - for dads as well as moms - most fathers remain reluctant to take time off.

Parents who succeed in getting 12 weeks off to care for a baby also quickly learn that their challenges have just begun. Laws can never cover all the contingencies of family life - snow days, sick days, school conferences, no-show baby sitters. In those situations, only more understanding attitudes can help.

It's too easy to cast the players in this workplace drama in good-guy/bad-guy roles, pitting ''good'' parents against ''bad'' bosses. As Miller-Silverman's case illustrates, both parties may have compelling reasons for the demands they make.

Work and family can no longer be antithetical parts of Americans' lives. That's the message emerging from this second anniversary. It is a neat idea with complicated challenges in practice. For while politicians talk glibly about family values, working parents continue to learn just how ingenious and tireless they must be to fulfill their double roles.

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