Family Leave -- Again

October 02, 1991

Once again, Congress is considering a family-leave proposal that would substitute government Diktat for good private business practice.

The public policy question is not whether employee benefits packages with options for unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child or for the serious illness of an immediate family member are desirable. We think they are. The public policy question is whether such benefits should be required by government mandate. We think not.

The Senate is voting this week on a leave measure that fails to measure up to the compassionate rhetoric of its sponsors. Let's look at its negatives:

* By limiting its application only to businesses with more than 50 workers, it excludes 95 percent of the nation's small enterprises and 44 percent of the total work force. Does the country really need such an unfair two-tier system?

* By denying eligibility to those in the top 10-percent income bracket in any one firm, the bill would exclude those persons who are most able to afford unpaid leave. Most workers, especially in recession times when job security is tenuous and individual debt at an all-time high, just cannot take time off without pay. This is especially true of single-parent families and the working poor.

Given these drawbacks, why is Congress again challenging President Bush in a contest is it likely to lose? The most immediate answer is politics. Democrats are trying to build a case through a number of worker-oriented proposals that Mr. Bush is indifferent to the concerns of ordinary Americans. Another reason is that family leave is an issue with a constituency -- namely, two-worker families that can afford unpaid leave so long as their jobs are protected. A myriad of lobbies can be enlisted in the cause.

If the president is ignoring the nation's domestic needs, there are many more compelling issues on which his critics could focus. Health care insurance stands out. The best answer for the family leave problem is enlightened management. Employers and employees should privately develop benefits packages that can be selected and shaped to the needs of each individual. Government intervention inevitably introduces inflexibility and arbitrariness, adds to labor costs and discourages employment growth. It should be rebuffed once again.

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