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Senate Passes Bill Requiring Unpaid Family Leave

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WASHINGTON--In a move that appeared to be calculated to help Democrats in the election year "family values'' debate, the Senate last month passed a bill that would require some employers to grant workers unpaid leave to care for newborn children or ill family members.

The measure was passed by voice vote days before the start of the Republican national convention, allowing Democrats to upstage the Bush Administration on a theme that dominated the G.O.P. gathering.

"There is a lot of talk these days in the halls of Congress and on the campaign trail about helping working families,'' said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., the bill's chief sponsor. "It's time to replace family values rhetoric with real policies that truly value families.''

"Those who believe in family values should be supporting this family legislation,'' echoed the majority leader, Sen. George Mitchell of Maine.

The measure is backed by the Democratic Presidential candidate, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, and opposed by President Bush, who vetoed a family-leave bill in 1990. Mr. Bush argues that leave policies should be negotiated between employers and employees and not mandated by the federal government.

The bill passed last month, S 5, is a compromise version of bills approved by the Senate and the House in the fall of 1991. The House is expected to pass the conference-committee report this month, but it is unclear whether it will garner the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override a veto.

Bill's Provisions

The "family and medical leave act'' would cover only firms with more than 50 employees, exempting 95 percent of all employers.

It would provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave a year--with continued health insurance--for the birth or adoption of a child or the serious illness of the employee or an immediate family member. Accrued paid leave could be substituted for any of the 12-week period.

To be eligible, employees would have to have worked for the previous 12 months and to have worked 1,250 hours, or 25 hours a week during that time.

It also would allow employers to exempt "key employees,'' defined as the highest-ranking 10 percent of the workforce, from coverage.

Government Knows Best?

Two Republican Senators spoke in support of the bill during floor debate.

"The most important step we can take to help all families in America, is by taking steps to reinstill individual and family responsibility,'' said Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, who helped negotiate a compromise that would provide more flexibility and safeguards for businesses. "As a society we should never force a parent to choose between a sick child and his or her job.''

Citing modifications that were made to address business concerns, Sen. Daniel R. Coats of Indiana said the bill "represents a sincere attempt to address the needs of business and working families.''

The minority leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, argued that while he supports family-leave policies initiated by businesses, it is wrong to assume "the government knows best how to spend everyone's benefit dollars.''

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., also said the bill would be costly for businesses and could cause some to cut wages or other benefits.

Education groups for the most part have supported the measure since language was added in an early version that would give schools more leeway to ensure class schedules would not be disrupted.

S 5, for example, would let schools require employees to extend their leave until the next school term, rather than returning shortly before the end of a term.

Schools could also require teachers who must take planned intermittent leave for health reasons to take the leave for a particular duration or be transferred temporarily to an alternative equivalent position.

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