Senate Backs Compromise Version of Family-Leave Bill

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WASHINGTON--Garnering what appeared to be enough votes to override an expected Presidential veto, the Senate last week passed a compromise version of a bill that would require employers to grant workers unpaid, job-protected leave to care for infants or ill family members.

Although the Senate approved the "family and medical leave act" by voice vote, a critical amendment watering down some of the bill's restrictions passed on a roll call vote of 65 to 32.

Backers were quick to note that three Democrats favoring the overall measure--Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and David Pryor of Arkansas--were absent for the vote. Their support would have ensured one more vote than necessary to gain the two-thirds majority needed to reverse a veto from President Bush, who vetoed a similar bill that cleared the Congress last year.

Despite the concessions made in the compromise version, the President and several influential business groups continue to oppose the legislation, which they maintain imposes "mandatory benefits" that reduce flexibility in employer-employee benefit negotiations.

As approved by the Senate, the bill would require employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year for the birth or adoption of a child or the serious illness of the employee or a child, spouse, or parent. It would exempt businesses with fewer than 50 employees, which account for 95 percent of all employers.

The compromise amendment-crafted by Senators Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, Wendell H. Ford, Democrat of Kentucky, and Christopher S. Bond, Republican of Missouri--would allow employers to exempt "key employees," defined as the highest paid 10 percent of their workforce. It would also tighten eligibility for part-time workers, requiring employees to work at least 1,250 hours a year, or 25 hours a week, for at least 12 months before qualifying for the leave.

The compromise also eased financial sanctions on employers who violate the law.

Alternatives Rejected

The Senate opposed, 57 to 40, an amendment offered by Senator David Durenberger, Republican of Minnesota, that would have replaced the bill's enforcement provisions with binding arbitration.

It also rejected, 65 to 32, a substitute bill proposed by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, that would have given workers who quit for family reasons for up to six years rehiring preference if the same or a comparable job is available when they decide to return to worker notifying them of subsequent openings for up to a year.

While conceding that "many long and difficult steps lie ahead" on the route to final passage of the leave bill, the Senate's majority leader, George J. Mitchell, said last week that the Senate had cleared "the first substantial hurdle" with its vote.

The House is expected to act on a similar bill in a few weeks.

Vol. 11, Issue 06, Page 30

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