For Parents On Leave, It's a Stretch

States consider new insurance to help workers afford time off for family needs.

When Carol Griffin's son fell ill a few years ago, she knew she had to be with him - even though it meant missing work and eventually going without pay.

But this single mother in Richmond, Calif., was fortunate. A few weeks after the paychecks ran out, her employer - the local Social Security office - allowed her colleagues to donate their own leave time to her.

"If they hadn't helped me out, I would have ended up losing the house," says Ms. Griffin, whose son is now fine.

Many Americans haven't had that kind of safety net. Though the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 allows workers at large businesses to take as many as 12 weeks off to care for newborns or sick relatives, or to recover from their own illnesses, there's no pay requirement.

About half of such employees do draw paychecks while they're out. But the rest don't, and for some it means forgoing time off altogether. Among the millions who have taken FMLA leave, 9 percent have wound up on public assistance. Others use their savings or rely on family and friends.

Several states are looking for ways to keep some pay coming in during leave, through a concept called "family leave insurance." In Vermont, state legislators and labor activists are working out a proposal to broaden the definition of "unemployment," thus allowing leave-takers to qualify for unemployment insurance.

In New Jersey, a bill last year to provide family-leave insurance through the state's existing temporary disability insurance program had strong bipartisan support, but statewide elections curtailed the legislative session and the bill died. A new bill was has just been introduced.

In California, organized labor is pushing for a bill to study the cost of extending state disability insurance to cover family and medical leave.

Other efforts are under way in New York, Maryland, and Massachusetts.

"This issue hasn't crested yet, but there's definitely a lot of interest among employees, among moms and dads, among children's advocates, and policymakers," says Donna Lenhoff, general counsel at the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington. "Not a day goes by when I don't talk to someone in one of those communities about how we can help make family leave affordable."

The mini-wave of interest in family-leave insurance reflects states' new role as laboratories for change in social policy. In 1996, the bipartisan Family Leave Commission supported the concept of family-leave insurance, but the issue hasn't gathered much attention on Capitol Hill.

A bigger umbrella?

In Congress, supporters of family leave are instead focused on how to make more workers eligible under the existing FMLA. Proposals include lowering the threshold for compliance to businesses with 25 employees or more (down from 50) and expanding the concept of family leave to allow employees to take small chunks of time for routine family needs, such as parent-teacher conferences.

Pro-business groups object to the addition of any more employer mandates.

Barry Lawrence, spokesman for the Society of Human Resources Management, says many companies offer employees short- and long-term disability insurance, which provides some wage replacement during an absence.

But the bottom line, he says, is that people must be responsible for their own futures and plan ahead by putting money aside for maternity leave or to take time off to care for an ailing parent.

"You can't expect employers to foot all the bills," says Mr. Lawrence. His group supports a Republican-backed plan in Congress that would allow workers to accrue compensatory time off instead of extra pay for overtime.

Time off with some pay

On the issue of insurance, five states - California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Hawaii - and Puerto Rico already require employers to provide temporary disability insurance to employees. These plans replace part of the wages that employees miss when they take time off because of non-work-related illness or injury. (Work-related problems are covered by workmen's compensation.)

In New Jersey, the plan for family-leave insurance under consideration would extend temporary disability insurance to allow partially paid leave for as many as 12 weeks to care for a new baby or a sick family member. Under the compensation formula, benefits for 1998 would be capped at $364 a week.

New Jersey's proposal includes no increase in taxes for employees or employers, because funds would come from the surplus in the state's temporary disability insurance fund. According to Greg Williams, a legislative analyst in the New Jersey legislature, the annual cost for family-leave insurance would be $50 to $60 per worker.

In Vermont, state Sen. Jan Backus (D) would like to fund family-leave insurance by using part of the surplus in the state's unemployment insurance fund. She would also like to lower the unemployment tax rate for employers.

"We can do both," she says. "And politically, we want to do both."

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