Benefits of Leave Bill to Children, Families Extolled

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WASHINGTON--Supporters of a bill that would require large firms to grant workers unpaid leave for family emergencies, which appears headed for swift action in Congress, have long argued that the legislation would take a landmark step toward helping employees reconcile work and family concerns.

But interviews last week with educators and child advocates backing the bill highlighted its significance for another constituency: children.

Citing research on the critical nature of early interactions between parents and children and on the healing role parents can play in an ill child's recovery, these advocates characterize a federal family-leave policy as one in a series of steps needed to strengthen families and promote children's well-being.

"The debate has been centered around the fact that other countries have it, that mothers want it, that it's a good idea,'' said Edward F. Zigler, a Yale University psychologist and the director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. "But there hasn't been enough attention to its benefits for families and children.''

The "family and medical leave act'' was approved last week by the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. It was expected to reach the floors of both chambers this week.

The bill is similar to one vetoed by President Bush last year, which was watered down somewhat from another measure he had vetoed earlier. Its adoption would end a seven-year impasse in Congress over various versions of leave legislation.

Because it is endorsed by Pres-ident Clinton, the measure appeared headed for early passage and was expected to be one of the first to reach his desk. The only foreseeable obstacle, observers said, would be if an amendment retaining the ban on homosexuals in the military is attached to the leave bill--a move some Senate Republicans were considering last week as a means of forcing a confrontation on that issue.

Urging swift passage of the bill, Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich last week said it would "signal a turning point in the history of American workforce policy'' and "serve as the emphatic opening statement of the Clinton Adminstration's workforce agenda.''

Opening the Floodgates?

The bill would require firms with more than 50 workers to grant up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave, with job protection and continued health benefits, for the birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child; the serious illness a child, spouse, or parent; or the worker's own serious illness, as verified by a doctor.

To qualify, an employee must have worked for the firm for at least one year and for at least 25 hours a week for the previous 12 months. The bill would allow firms to exempt key employees, defined as the highest-paid 10 percent of the workforce.

Employees could elect, or employers could require, that an employee substitute accrued paid leave for any part of the 12-week period.

Backers contend that the bill, which would cover about 60 percent of the nation's employees but only about 5 percent of businesses, is modest compared with policies in many other industrialized countries that offer longer, paid family leave.

But opponents in Congress and the business community counter that it would hurt smaller firms financially, force them to cut back other benefits, and interfere with negotiated employee benefits. They also say the bill could pave the way for other costly mandated benefits.

"Small-business owners fear that the precedent set by this legislation would open the floodgates to an increasing number of attempts to force business to pay for every benefit deemed desirable, or those unattainable at the bargaining table,'' said a statement from the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

The bill also "restricts the opportunity for covered employees to participate in a 'cafeteria plan' [of benefits] which may better fit their needs,'' argued Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa.

Responding to concerns raised by the National School Boards Association, the bill's sponsors a few years ago added special provisions that allow schools to avoid disruptions in the continuity of instruction.

The bill would give districts leeway to require teachers taking leave near the end of a school term to extend their leave rather than return in the final weeks. It would also allow districts to require those taking a certain number of hours of intermittent leave for medical reasons to schedule it in a block or transfer temporarily to another position.

Since those provisions were added, the N.S.B.A. and other school groups have stood behind the bill.

Link to Child Health

Child- and family-policy experts, many of whom favor longer or paid leaves, still consider the policy a boon to healthy child development.

Ellen Galinsky, a co-president of the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit group based in New York that studies family policies in the workplace, said no research has emerged exploring the impact of family-leave policies on children.

But she cited evidence that having parents work "very long hours very young in a child's life is not necessarily wonderful, given the poor quality of child care that's out there.''

"When we think about children's policy, I think we have to think of parental leave as one of the first steps in maternal- and child-health care,'' said Ms. Galinsky, who is also a past president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Mr. Zigler of the Yale Bush Center also said family leave helps support "the institution that most affects the growth and development of the child--the family.''

"If we are interested in school readiness, we have to be interested in the optimal development of the child and in making families more optimal socializers of their children,'' he said.

A recent publication of the Zero to Three/National Center for Clinical Infant Programs states that "infants and toddlers especially need someone present steadily enough to sense their temperaments, to learn their rhythms and signs, and to respond in ways that the infant can predict and understand.''

The group also argues that time parents spend early on with infants "signals the importance that beloved adults attach to the relationship'' and gives them time "to feel competent as care-givers.''

It is critical, "especially immediately after birth or adoption, for parents to have unhurried time to insure proper unhurried caring,'' added Beverly Jackson, the center's director of public policy.

The leave bill also offers "one of the more important kinds of support'' needed by families that adopt or are caring for foster children with severe medical and emotional problems, said Mary Bourdette, the director of public policy for the Child Welfare League of America.

Joel Packer, a senior professional associate with the National Education Association, also underscored the importance "to a child's well-being as well as physical recovery'' for parents to be with seriously ill children.

"If a parent would rather be with a newborn or sick baby, it is not good to force them to be in the classroom,'' he added.

Relying on Compassion

According to the Families and Work Institute, 25 states and the District of Columbia have legislated some form of parental or family leave, but the policies vary widely in coverage and eligibility. California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island, for example, are alone in offering partial wage replacement during pregnancy and childbirth by requiring companies to purchase temporary disability insurance.

Such steps--as well as moves by firms to adopt "family friendly'' policies--are preferable to a federal mandate, critics of the bill argue.

But backers say many workers lack the coverage they need. Only about 40 percent of working women are entitled to paid maternity, disability, or parental leave, Ms. Jackson said, and about 30 percent have access to unpaid leave.

The N.E.A. backs the bill because "not all our members have all these provisions in their workplace,'' Mr. Packer said. While most have maternity leave, he noted, "they don't always have the ability'' to take leave if a child or parent is ill.

Sandra Seymour, a reading specialist in a suburban Milwaukee school district, testified before Congress in 1991 that her district denied her request for one week of unpaid leave when her 82-year-old father in another state had two heart attacks.

A Wisconsin law enacted later enabled her to be with her father when he faced another health crisis before his death, she said, but noted that many workers lack that recourse.

She and others facing similar crises in her district "relied heavily on very compassionate legislators who have understood problems working families have,'' Ms. Seymour said.

She also highlighted the significance of family leave "to teachers who are on the front lines of seeing the horrible things happening to children in America'' as increasing numbers of families dissolve or become dysfunctional.

Laurie Tryfiates, the director of legislation and public policy for Concerned Women for America, which takes a conservative stance on social issues, called the bill "well intentioned.'' But she argued that it would harm the economy and could cause firms to "think twice'' about hiring women of childbearing age.

Another problem, she said, is that the measure "sets up in people's mind the false expectation that bonding can miraculously occur within this 12-week time frame.''

Concerned Women does not feel mandating longer leaves would solve the problem. But backers of the bill--while content to see this version pass--admit they may seek a stronger bill in the next few years.

With increasing national attention on the problems of families and young children, said Ms. Jackson of the Zero to Three center, "this is a great time to remove some of the compromises that were made ... and expand the legislation.''

Vol. 12, Issue 18

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