ANNAPOLIS -- Presenting their case to a Senate Finance Committee that has killed similar legislation, proponents of mandatory extended leave touted yesterday a more moderate family-leave bill along the same lines as one approved by Congress.
Calling it "one of the most important bills to come before the Legislature this session," Sen. Idamae Garrott, D-Montgomery, the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 124, said the legislation "will bring the realities of the workplace into the reality of how families live now."
The bill, a pared-down version of legislation that has failed in at least three previous sessions, would require companies with 50 or more employees to allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. An employee's group health coverage would have to be continued under the bill.
The leave policy would apply in the case of a birth, adoption or foster-care placement of a child. And it would allow leave if the worker or a child, parent or spouse became seriously ill.
If both parents worked for a company, they wouldn't both be entitled to take leave at the same time.
The bill speaks to the majority of families that no longer fit the "Ozzie and Harriet" mold, in which the mother stays home to care for the child, its supporters told the committee.
"Is it unfair for someone to lose their job because they've either given birth, adopted a child or had to care for a sick [dependent]?" said Janelle Cousino, coordinator for the Family Leave Task Force, a coalition whose 45 member groups include about half a million people.
Bobbi Seabolt, a lobbyist for the Maryland Women's Health Coalition and the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, pointed out that the United States and South Africa are the only major industrialized nations that don't guarantee some form of job protection for maternity leave.
State employees are covered by a family-leave policy, as are employees of various counties and Baltimore. And Congress passed a bill similar to Ms. Garrott's, only to see it vetoed by President Bush last year.
Some proponents said the fact that Congress no longer is addressing the issue puts new pressure on state legislators to act.
But the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, among other business groups, objected to making mandatory a benefit they say most businesses are offering anyway.
Stuart Gordon, a chamber lobbyist who wore a "Family Leave is Good for Business" button to the hearing, said 73 percent of his group's members offer some type of family-leave benefits voluntarily.
The chamber's survey, however, showed that only 58 percent of the members offer maternity leave and that 46 percent offer leave for a sick spouse. Mr. Gordon also said it would be costly to continue health coverage for employees on leave.
James Goeden, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, called the legislation "essentially . . . a yuppie bill. It's a bill for women who have enough money to afford it," he said, focusing on the unpaid aspect of the proposed leaves. "It discriminates against those who can't afford it."
The members of the committee were mostly silent on the issue, except for Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, who made it clear that he is strongly opposed to the bill.
Questioned afterward, Finance Committee Chairman Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's, said, "I personally believe that a different approach would be best for the community," one possibly including incentives provided to employers through a new type of insurance to cover the cost of offering unpaid leave.