Family Leave Offers a Matchless Gift - Care Time at Home

As anniversaries go, it will be a low-key celebration. No big parties, no cakes with five candles, no balloons and noisemakers. But for family advocates in Washington and elsewhere, today marks a significant, hard-won victory for American families.

This is the fifth anniversary of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Since Aug. 5, 1994, workers at firms with 50 or more employees have been able to take as many as 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave to care for a baby or a family member, or to recover from their own illness. An estimated 20 million families have benefited, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington.

The story actually begins 14 years ago. In 1984 a federal court struck down California's maternity-leave law, calling it sex discrimination against men. Donna Lenhoff, general counsel of the National Partnership, formerly the Women's Legal Defense Fund, received a desperate call from Rep. Howard Berman (D) of California, who as a state legislator had helped sponsor the bill. How, he asked, could they save maternity leave in the state?

During a meeting Ms. Lenhoff, Representative Berman, and a few others took a broader approach. "We wanted it to be national, to cover not just maternity but paternity, and not just childbirth but adoption and sick leave," Lenhoff explains.

After leaving the room, she sat down at a typewriter - remember typewriters? - and drafted an outline in statutory language. As she describes it, "The great-great-great granddaughter of that proposal became the Family and Medical Leave Act."

Initially, many employers' objections centered around money, even though leave time is unpaid. But in an encouraging study released two weeks ago by the Families and Work Institute in New York, 42 percent of businesses say benefits outweigh costs. Another 42 percent report that the law is cost-neutral, with benefits and costs offsetting one another. Just 17 percent of businesses find that costs outweigh benefits.

Other objections are philosophical. Some opponents, Lenhoff says, believe that "the private market should always decide matters between employers and employees - that there should be no government standard set." Many in this group, she adds, would oppose minimum-wage or overtime laws on similar grounds.

As the workplace becomes more diverse, and as extended families scatter, more and more employees find themselves shouldering caregiving responsibilities alone. And although the media spotlight has typically focused on the need to care for newborns, the importance of family leave may be shifting to include a less visible generation.

In a new survey by the Conference Board in New York, 94 percent of corporate executives at major companies in the US, Europe, Canada, and Australia say elder care will become an increasing concern over the next five years. Another study by the National Partnership finds that more than half of employees think they will need to care for an elderly parent or relative in the next 10 years.

This demographic shift could strengthen support for family leave. If senior executives who have been less than sympathetic to the needs of young families find themselves needing to help their own parents, the act might suddenly take on new meaning for them.

The long arm of the law is always a suspect intruder in family matters. But without the benefits the act has brought, many employees would face the unacceptable alternatives of five years ago, when the workplace ultimatum too often was: "Your family or your job." This is one measure from Washington that is proving to be not only efficient and effective but also compassionate.

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