Clinton acts to help new parents take a leave from jobs

A new rule will let states use money from unemployment insurance to

President Clinton has opened the way for states to give financial support to new parents - a move intended to enable more US workers to get paid leave from their jobs to welcome a new baby.

The move, which Mr. Clinton made unilaterally through an executive order, is seen as a complement to the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. That legislation protects workers' jobs for as many as 12 weeks while they are on leave to care for a family member, but analysts say few workers are in a position to take advantage of that provision if the leave is unpaid.

The president's action allows states to take funds from the unemployment-insurance system and direct some of that money to help new parents make up for wages lost from taking time off. It is likely to be cheered by working couples across America, who routinely cite work-family issues as among the most stressful of their lives.

"It's certainly true that [many] parents who take family [leave] don't get paid for it. That's a real deterrent," says Sheila Zedlewski, director of income and benefits policy at the Urban Institute here. A 1996 study by the Commission on Family and Medical Leave found that the most significant reason parents did not take advantage of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child was the expected loss of income.

The announcement is also another example of how this president is using the powers of the Oval Office to keep his administration alive as it heads into its last year - a traditionally weak period in a two-term presidency.

For now, the administration is not sure how many states will take up this voluntary option. States administer the unemployment-compensation system, and their rules vary widely. But the White House says several states have asked permission to reconfigure their unemployment systems for just this purpose.

A handful of states, including New Jersey and California, provide some paid leave for new parents through state disability insurance. But most states provide no such coverage, and workers must rely on the generosity of employers to get paid leave. Many firms do not, and as a result, new parents often patch together accumulated sick time and vacation to spend time with a new arrival.

Who would benefit?

Because unemployment eligibility requirements in many states disqualify low-income, high job-turnover workers, Ms. Zedlewski expects that Clinton's new rule would benefit mostly medium- to high-earners who are taking leave from jobs they've had for awhile.

The change would also be likely to affect corporations, which pay taxes to fund unemployment insurance. They will have 45 days to comment on the proposed rule.

Interested states

At least four states - Massachusetts, Vermont, Maryland, and Washington - already have considered using unemployment benefits to help new parents.

In Maryland, a state legislator brought up the issue about a year ago. But there could be complications in taking advantage of any new regulations, says Karen Napolitano, spokeswoman for Maryland's Department of Labor. For example, to qualify for unemployment benefits in that state, a person has to be looking for work. Someone on parental leave is hardly in that position, she notes.

At the same time, even though Maryland is experiencing record-low unemployment, it's not as if the state is "swimming" in excess unemployment reserves, says Ms. Napolitano. "Maryland is going to wait and see what this new ruling is."

Meanwhile, there's the question of what happens when the next recession comes and states, in the meantime, have shifted some of their unemployment funds to new parents. States have the option of borrowing to shore up their unemployment-insurance programs, says Department of Labor official Cheryl Atkinson. "But we assume states will take that into consideration" when they assess whether to participate in this new program or not, she says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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