US Workers, Companies Give Family-Leave Law Good Grade

Study finds concerns of cost, burden largely unfounded

Until the Family and Medical Leave Act went into effect three years ago, teachers in Margie Smock's school system in Marmora, N.J., were required to take maternity leave for the whole academic year or not at all. School policies also stated that returning teachers could be placed in any teaching position.

But under the new law, which grants employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave and requires employers to reinstate workers in equivalent jobs, those practices ended. After her baby was born, Mrs. Smock, a fourth-grade teacher, took three months off, then returned to the same grade.

"We really couldn't afford for me to be off the whole year, but three months was great," says Smock, whose daughter, Madeline, turns 2 today. School administrators, she adds, "were very supportive of me doing this."

Smock is one of several million American workers who have used provisions of the law to meet family needs. Despite warnings by critics that the measure would be costly and burdensome for employers, a comprehensive 18-month study by a bipartisan commission finds that those early fears remain largely unfounded.

In a report delivered to Congress last week, the 12-member Family Leave Commission calls the law a success, noting that workers have used it to care for newborn or newly adopted children or family members with a serious health condition. By replacing random employer-leave policies with a more uniform standard, the report states, the act has had a "positive impact" on employees overall.

"One thing that surprised me was how little noticeable effect there was on employers," says Donna Lenhoff, general counsel of the Women's Legal Defense Fund in Washington and vice chairwoman of the commission. "There had been predictions of very great disruption. Those predictions simply did not come true. Providing unpaid leave is not an administrative burden, nor does it create significant additional costs. If it's unpaid, it's not costing them a salary. What we're really talking about here is holding someone's job for 12 weeks and continuing health insurance."

From January 1994 to July 1995, between 1.5 million and 3 million workers took family or medical leave - less than 4 percent of those who were eligible. Only 14 percent of employers reported noticeable effects on productivity.

The median length of leave, according to the study, is 10 days. For women taking maternity-related time off, two-fifths of leaves last 85 days or longer, with a third lasting between 29 and 84 days. Employees between the ages of 25 and 34 are most likely to take leave.

The survey found that 84 percent of leave-takers return to their same employer, while only 6 percent do not. Another 10 percent remain on leave. Two-fifths of employees expect to need family leave in the next five years.

Because the law applies only to businesses with 50 or more employees and to individuals who have worked for an eligible employer for at least a year, nearly half of American workers are not covered. And since the measure provides only unpaid leave, two-thirds of those surveyed cite lost wages as a barrier to taking time off. Among women who took leave time for family care, nearly 1 in 8 were forced to go on public assistance during their leave - a finding Ms. Lenhoff calls "surprising and appalling."

While the commission did not take a position on wage replacement, Lenhoff proposes a "national dialogue" on ways to provide income during family leave. In Canada, she explains, partial wages are available through the unemployment compensation system.

One commission member opposed to the family leave act, Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, says that so far the law "does not appear to have had a major impact, for good or ill." He acknowledges that some employees have been able to take leave that was unavailable before, but notes that "some employers have reported increased costs or compliance burdens."

Senator Craig adds, "The more a so-called benefit is embodied in a one-size-fits-all mandate from a distant government in Washington, D.C., the greater the risk that real people in real workplaces will have less and less freedom to do what is best for their families, coworkers, employers, and employees, given their unique and individual circumstances."

For its part, the commission unanimously adopted a series of recommendations to make the family leave act more effective. Noting that about 40 percent of eligible employees remain unaware of their potential benefits, it urges the Labor Department to do more to educate workers and employers about the law.

The group calls for additional research to measure the impact of family-leave policies on child development as well as their effect on employees' morale, productivity, and turnover. It also suggests research to determine whether such policies help to contain health care costs. Finally, the commission recommends studying the long-term costs and benefits for employers.

Commissioners emphasize that family leave is part of a broader array of policies that include flexible work schedules, part-time jobs, and telecommuting. Businesses, explains Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, "do not have to choose between being family-friendly and being competitive."

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