Launching a congressional drive to confront the problems of a changing work force that now includes most of the nation's mothers of small children, two House panels in recent days approved legislation to guarantee both mothers and fathers up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave and job security after the birth or adoption of a child.
Under the dual strain of family and job, "Supermom has collapsed. She has collapsed with exhaustion," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), a leading backer of the bill. Schroeder said that the United States is about the only industrial country that lacks a national policy guaranteeing leave for at least one parent.
But Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) said that forcing employers to offer such a costly benefit could make them reluctant to hire women, who are more likely than men to ask parental leave. She warned that the bill raises "a serious question of whether there will be an unintended backlash here."
The measure, which would require that an equivalent job be held for an employee on parental leave, was approved Thursday on an 8-5 vote by the House Education and Labor subcommittee on labor-management relations and is expected to win approval of the full committee on June 24. The subcommittee took its vote only a day after the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee unanimously approved legislation offering similar benefits to the nation's 2 million civilian federal workers.
The bill also would guarantee the same amount of leave to parents of severely ill children and to workers who have serious health conditions that make them unable to perform their jobs.
Labor and Education Committee Chairman Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles) and labor-management subcommittee Chairman William L. Clay (D-Mo.) predicted that the measure will win House passage this summer with few modifications. However, its prospects for becoming law before Congress adjourns this fall are uncertain.
Resistance to the idea is expected to be stiffer in the Senate, which has not begun hearings on a companion measure introduced by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). Meanwhile, business organizations are rounding up opponents that range from grocery stores to lumber mills to fight what U.S. Chamber of Commerce attorney Virginia B. Lamp called "a very serious threat to business."
State Law Challenged
Adding urgency to supporters' push for a federal law is the stiff legal challenge facing a similar California statute, one of four such state laws in the nation.
The case was filed by Los Angeles-based California Federal Savings and Loan Assn., which unsuccessfully tried to deny a receptionist her old job after a two-month maternity leave in 1982. The savings and loan organization argues that the state law unfairly gives women benefits that male employees do not have and conflicts with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which requires companies to cover pregnant women with the same benefits they offer disabled workers.
A lower court upheld the state law, and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear the case later this year. Passage of the parental leave bill could make the case moot.
The government traditionally has avoided determining specifically what benefits employers must offer their workers. To date, the only federally mandated benefits are Social Security, workers compensation and unemployment.
Says Small Employers Harmed
Lamp said that the bill, which would apply to all employers of more than five workers, would be unfair to small employers, who cannot afford to hold a critical job open while an employee takes parental leave. She also pointed out that the leave could only be used by employees wealthy enough to go months without wages.
A far better approach, Lamp and other opponents argued, would be to allow companies maximum flexibility to come up with arrangements such as job-sharing and to allow new parents to work part time.
Opponents most fear that the bill could be used as a first step toward requiring employers to provide paid leave to new parents, as many other countries do. A provision in the bill would establish a commission to study the idea.
Hawkins and Clay said they expect to make several modifications before the bill reaches the House floor and probably will agree to exempt more small firms. However, Clay said he does not expect to go along with Roukema's request that it be applied only to firms with 50 or more employees.
Would Have Congress Conform
Clay also said he will agree to demands by critics that Congress itself be forced to offer the benefit to its workers. Congress has exempted itself from most labor laws.
Demand for guaranteed parental leave has grown as women have been driven by economic necessity or professional ambition to continue working after they have babies. More than half the mothers of children under the age of 6 are now in the work force; almost 47% of those whose children are less than a year old are working.
Women are not the only new parents asking for time off. The United Mine Workers Union, representing one of the nation's most male-dominated professions, was surprised several years ago when "local union resolutions calling for parental leave to be part of our bargaining agenda poured into the union headquarters," UMW board member Stephen F. Webber testified at a congressional hearing. However, the most it could get in bargaining was an agreement by mine owners to study the matter.
Many Policies Now Exist
Many employers have tried to adjust to the needs of working mothers, but the result is a wide range of policies that may be used discriminatorily.
A 1984 study of 384 large firms by Catalyst, a New York-based research organization, showed that while 95% offered an average of six to eight weeks disability leave to new mothers, only 52% had a policy allowing them further unpaid time off with a guarantee that they would return to jobs comparable to their previous ones. That additional leave averaged three months.
Data indicated that another 28% were willing to consider individual requests for unpaid leave and job guarantees but suggested that it was something the firms could choose to "offer to the employees they like" and deny when they want to "weed out employees they don't like," Catalyst's Margaret Meiers said.
And, while 37% said they granted leave to fathers, more than half of those firms said they believe it is unreasonable for men to ask for more than two weeks.