Magazine article Insight on the News

The Dark Side of Family Leave

Magazine article Insight on the News

The Dark Side of Family Leave

Article excerpt

The family and medical leave bill, the first major legislation signed by President Clinton, might be called a monument to the end of gridlock -- the new term for what used to be called checks and balances.

Twice vetoed by George Bush, it had strong support in both the House and Senate. When the overwhelmingly negative public response to Clinton's proposal to lift the ban on gays in the military sent the new administration searching for an issue that promised both a mi controversy and speedy approval from Congress, this "pro-family" issue -- appealing to a public increasingly attuned to the dilemmas of balancing work and family responsibilities -- was an obvious choice. In a trice, the bill sailed through Congress and Clinton signed it.

Besides its political merits, the new law had another aspect that is undeniably appealing on Capitol Hill. As far as government accounting is concerned, family and medical leave is social legislation that's all benefit and no cost. Legislating without adding to the budget deficit is Washington's version of eating your cake and having it too.

Because the new law operates by mandating that businesses provide a benefit to their employees, it won't show up on the budget books as a federal obligation. But that doesn't mean it's free. Complying with the mandate will cost employers, just as new taxes do. And many are concerned, particularly about the half of the bill that mandates leave for workers in the case of their own "serious illness" or that of a family Some -- either prescient or paranoid or both -- are predicting that the vague language governing this leave will lead to increased litigation, uncontrollable absenteeism and soaring costs.

Called a "yuppie bill" by opponents, the Family and Medical Leave Act mandates that companies with 50 or more employees must give them up to 12 weeks leave without pay every year -- for reasons ranging from physical or mental illness of a family member to the desire for parent-child "bonding."

The language of the law, as critics see it, is designed not just for family emergencies but to allow families in which both parents work full-time greater flexibility in scheduling work around needs at home without running the risk of being fired. Last-minute changes to the law that give employees the right to schedule their own hours have even some large businesses with liberal leave policies worried about the potential for loss of control over employees' schedules and the loss of productivity that may result.

When Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, reintroduced the family leave bill in the Senate in January, he announced to his colleagues that it was identical to the bill that President Bush vetoed last year.

But it didn't end up that way. Republican staffers say they were surprised when they found, in the closing hours of debate on the House floor, what appeared to be a substantial change in one of the major provisions. The original wording allowed employees to take leave on a "reduced leave schedule" -- defined as one "that reduces the usual number of hours per workweek or hours per workday" -- but only if the agreed.

Without the qualification, the law essentially gives workers the right to schedule their own hours without the approval of their boss, as long as "medically necessary." There was enough concern over the change that 50 House Democrats took the unusual step of siding with the opposition to pass a Republican amendment that switched the wording back to that of the original bill -- one of the few times in recent memory that a GOP amendment has been adopted on the House floor.

The amendment was killed in the Senate the next day and the House subsequently approved the bill, new wording and all. Still, some voiced misgivings about the speed with which the bill was rammed through by an administration and Congress eager to show some legislative results. "We're doing this all because we have to have a photo op at 30 a. …

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