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House Backs Bill Requiring Family Leave for Workers

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Washington--Citing a need to promote family well-being, House members last week approved a bill that would require firms with more than 50 employees to grant workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for newborn infants, newly adopted children, or sick family members.

The measure, which has evoked a veto threat from the White House, passed on a 237-to-187 vote, drawing support from 39 Republicans and opposition from 54 Democrats.

A companion bill has passed a Senate committee.

The final bill--the product of a compromise crafted by Representatives Bart Gordon, Democrat of Tennessee, and Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania--was watered down from earlier versions that offered separate leave periods for different categories of care and fewer exemptions for employers.

But Representative Patricia Schroeder, the Democrat from Colorado who first introduced parental-leave legislation five years ago, said the vote was still a significant victory.

"This is like the moon-shot legislation of the 1960s," she said. ''It shows Congress recognizes changes in our workforce and stresses families are under in this new global marketplace we're in."

"As we move into Mother's Day," she added, "we finally did something real besides chocolate and cards."

Added Representative Marge Roukema of New Jersey, a Republican sponsor of the measure, "We got the message across that what American families cannot afford is to lose their jobs in a crisis."

Although the vote fell short of the two-thirds needed to override a Presidential veto, House Majority Whip William H. Gray said the 50-vote margin should "deliver a message to the White House" that the measure has strong bipartisan support.

"The message today is that you cannot talk kinder and gentler and vote corporate interests," Ms. Schroeder added.

White House officials said last week that President Bush would veto the measure as long as it imposes mandatory employee benefits.

"We support and encourage parental- and medical-leave policies designed to meet the specific needs of individual companies and their employers," said Alixe Glen, a White House spokesman. "But this can best be achieved voluntarily and not by federal mandate."

Joking that she had been "bludgeoned from the left and the right" for her role in the bill, Ms. Roukema said she and other GOP sponsors have requested a meeting with Mr. Bush to explain "why we and other Republicans think this is a bedrock issue worthy of his support."

"I don't think the President, the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party wants to go into an election year" opposing a measure that benefits working families, she said.

Meets School Concerns

The version of the "family and medical leave act" approved by the House Education and Labor, the Post Office and Civil Service, and the House Administration committees last year would have allowed employees up to 10 weeks of unpaid family leave over a two-year period to care for a newborn, newly adopted, or newly placed foster child; a seriously ill child; or a seriously ill parent.

In addition, it would have granted up to 15 weeks a year for employees who have a serious health condition that interferes with their job.

The Gordon-Weldon compromise, which would affect 44 percent of American workers, would allow a total of 12 weeks a year for all the categories of leave included in the earlier bill, and it would add ill spouses to the list.

Like the earlier version, the sub4stitute would grant federal workers 18 weeks of unpaid family leave over two years and up to 26 weeks of unpaid medical leave per year.

The compromise offers a flat exemption for employers with fewer than 50 workers--essentially exempting 95 percent of all employers; the committee bill would have reduced that threshhold to 35 employees after three years.

The compromise would also prohibit more than one parent from taking leave at the same time to care for a newborn child.

Like the original bill, the substitute would offer job protection and continuation of health benefits while employees are on leave.

The substitute also retains several provisions, added last year by the Education and Labor Committee, designed to minimize disruptions in children's education when school employees take time off. (See Education Week, March 15, 1989.)

The provisions, backed by the National School Boards Association, would allow districts to require employees who take time off in the latter part of an academic term to extend their leave rather than return for the final few weeks.

Another amendment would give districts the flexibility to negotiate a particular duration of leave or the temporary reassignment of workers taking repeated leave for medical treatment. The bill would also allow districts to transfer teachers returning from leave to other classes or grades if current local policies permit.

A companion bill passed by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee does not include the school-related provisions. (See Education Week, April 26, 1989.)

The Senate panel's version would grant workers up to 10 weeks of family leave every two years and 13 weeks of medical leave, exempting firms with fewer than 20 workers.

Pro-Family or Anti-Business?

Both Democratic and Republican supporters last week hailed the measure as a "pro-family" move that would help families better meet the demands of work and parenthood.

Backers also maintain that the bill follows in the tradition of child8labor, minimum-wage, and worker-safety laws that safeguard employee well-being.

In addition, advocates argue, the House-passed measure would not unduly burden business, costing private employers less than $200 million a year, or the equivalent of $5.30 per covered employee, according to General Accounting Office estimates.

But critics contend that many firms already offer leave policies and that some businesses may have to limit other benefits to meet the federal mandate. They also argue that the g.a.o. estimates do not reflect such expenses as the costs of hiring and training replacement workers and lost productivity from employee absences. Mandating unpaid leave, they add, could pave the way for compulsory paid leave and other more costly benefits.

"I am concerned about the motives of this Congress, which thinks we can continue to pass on to the employer these responsibilities and costs and thinks they do not have a cumulative effect," said Representative Fred Grandy, Republican of Iowa.

While the measure has drawn opposition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, it has won the backing of a broad coalition of labor, civil-rights, religious, and civic groups.

Backers included the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Children's Defense Fund.

"It's a wonderful breakthrough," said Helen Blank, a senior program associate with the cdf. "It's extremely important for parents to have the option to stay home with children in those critical early months."

The bill, she added, should be viewed as "part of a comprehensive and sensible family policy" that includes child care.

Before voting on the bill, the House named conferees from the Education and Labor and the Ways and Means committees to work out differences with companion Senate panels over the stalled child-care bill. (See Education Week April 4, 1990.) The Senate appointed conferees last month.

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