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Enlightened Family-Leave Policy

The Senate and House are scheduled to take up bills late this summer that would would require employers to give workers 10 weeks of unpaid family leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, a seriously ill child or a very sick elderly parent. An America in which families with two working parents are more the rule than the exception needs such a law, and Washington should meet the need.

Under the legislation, employees also would be allowed up to 13 weeks of unpaid medical leave in the case of a serious personal illness. After the leave, workers would have the right to return to the same job or its equivalent.

The federal proposals are a step in the right direction, although not all employees would benefit. The Senate measure, sponsored by Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), would apply to firms with 35 or more employees, roughly 47% of the nation’s work force. The House bill, sponsored by Reps. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), William L. Clay (D-Mo.) and Margaret S. Roukema (R-N.J.), would cover companies with 50 or more workers, which account for about 40% of the work force.

Although unpaid, the mandatory leaves would cost employers as much as $194 million under the more generous proposal. Businesses would absorb the expense of hiring and training a temporary employee as well as maintaining health benefits for the worker on leave. The additional expense would become part of the cost of doing business.

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Family leave is already required in 18 states. Workers in those states are permitted to take off anywhere from six to 13 weeks in cases involving new babies or sick children or parents without losing their jobs. California should be next.

A measure sponsored by Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) would allow employees to take unpaid leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted child or seriously ill child, parent, grandparent or elderly spouse. The bill covers employers with 25 or more workers, although it exempts the five highest-paid employees or the top 10% in income, and does not require the continuation of health coverage. Moore’s bill has passed the Assembly but it needs stronger Republican support to become law.

At the local level, the Los Angeles City Council is expected to take a final vote today on an unpaid family leave policy negotiated by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees on behalf of the city’s 4,000 clerical workers. The generous leave would allow up to four months off after childbirth, adoption or serious family illness. Under the policy, advocated by Councilwoman Joy Picus and Mayor Tom Bradley, clerical workers would return to the same job. All workers--in the city, the state and the nation--deserve similar benefits.


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