A Little Leave Can Go a Long Way : As U.S. senator, Wilson voted for a similar federal bill; now state legislation is needed

There is little doubt that the Family Rights Act of 1991, passed by the Legislature last week and heading toward Gov. Pete Wilson's desk, would benefit California's 13 million employees. What may have been lost in the debate over this reasonable family leave bill is that it would benefit the state's flagging economy as well by promoting the stability and economic security of those employees.

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles), AB 77 would allow workers to take unpaid employment leaves to care for seriously ill children, parents or spouses without losing their jobs. The bill applies only to employers with 50 or more employees, and leaves are limited to a maximum of 4 months in a 24-month period.

Moore amended her bill to protect employers against abuses by workers. For example, employers could require workers to present a doctor's certification of illness and to give advance notice of leave when possible; also, employees could not be eligible without at least one year of continuous service. Employers could deny leave if it would cause the company undue hardship.

At least 16 states now have some kind of parental leave policy (other than maternity leave), as do some of the nation's strongest trade competitors, including Japan. A recent study of family leave in four states found that the vast majority of employers--small businesses as well as large ones--incurred minimal costs in complying with the laws and that relatively few turned to temporary workers to replace employees on leave. In fact, women took less time off after childbirth in states with parental leave than in those without it, perhaps because they knew that they or their husbands could take off additional time later if their children needed them. A similar study, done for the Small Business Administration, found that formal family leave policies tend to retain employees.

Replacing workers who resign or are fired is expensive for firms. One termination can cost as much as 10 or more weeks of unpaid leave.

When children or parents become seriously ill, workers shouldn't have to choose between caring for them and keeping their jobs. California's economy depends on these workers just as the workers depend on their jobs.

Gov. Wilson has clearly indicated that he understands the wisdom of family leave legislation. As a U.S. senator, he voted for the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1990, passed by the Congress but vetoed by President Bush. A similar bill is now moving through Congress. We hope that Wilson as governor still recognizes the need to attract and retain skilled employees. This humane but reasonable bill should help.

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