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Family-Leave Measure Clears Labor Subcommittee

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Washington--A bill that would require firms with 50 or more workers to grant them unpaid leave to care for newborn or adopted children or ill family members cleared its first hurdle in the 102nd Congress last week.

The House Subcommittee on Labor-Management Relations passed the "family and medical leave act," which is identical to a bill vetoed by President Bush last year, on a 16-to-7 vote split largely along party lines.

The bill, HR 2, would require public and private employers with more than 50 employees to grant workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for newborn, newly adopted, or newly placed foster children; ill children, spouses, or parents; or their own serious illnesses.

School districts would have more leeway to set rules to avoid disruptions in children's schooling.

For example, districts could require that teachers return from leave at the start of a new term rather than in the final few weeks of one, or schedule a block of leave or be temporarily reassigned when medical treatment calls for frequent absences.

While voicing support for leave policies negotiated between employers and employees, Republican opponents argued against a federal mandate, which they said would not take into account the unique circumstances of various workplaces and could hamper productivity or limit4other benefits. Foes also said the bill would pave the way for other federally mandated job benefits.

The subcommittee's chairman, Representative Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana, said such arguments against the bill "are tired and worn through 50 years of usage" in opposition to child-labor laws, the minimum wage, Social Security, and workplace-safety mandates.

Representative Marge Roukema of New Jersey, the panel's ranking Republican and sole gop member to back the bill, called it a "very8modest, minimalist" standard "whose time has come."

Before adopting HR 2, the panel rejected a substitute, offered by Representative Thomas E. Petri, Republican of Wisconsin, modeled after his home state's less-stringent family-leave law.

The bill must clear three House committees before moving to the floor. The Post Office and Civil Service Committee was to act on the bill this week, and the full Education and Labor Committee has set a markup date of March 19.

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