Md. employers don't expect rush to use family leave Bill on fast track in Congress, but bosses say most workers can't afford 3 months off

January 30, 1993|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

You might think Susan Smith is the kind of executive who would be the most worried about Congress' rush to pass a family leave law. You would be wrong.

"I'm glad people will have the option," said Ms. Smith, head of human resources for RTKL Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based architecture firm whose Washington and Los Angeles offices work under the constraints of local family leave ordinances. "As an employer, where I've had experience in the District of Columbia, I don't think there's going to be this rush to use it."

Business lobbyists on Capitol Hill have howled about the proposal, which would affect employers with 50 or more workers. Its basic provisions would force companies to offer workers up to 12 unpaid weeks of leave if they or their spouse have a baby, are seriously ill or need to care for a sick spouse, child or parent. Such conditions, the lobbyists say, would cost employers millions -- if not billions -- of dollars in lost productivity, training and other costs.

Still, the bill, which former President George Bush vetoed last year, breezed through House and Senate committees this week, and President Clinton has vowed to sign a family leave law. And in Maryland, the proposed legislation is being received calmly by many employers -- even among small businesses.

Budgetary concerns, career progress and company loyalty are expected to limit the use of the new benefits. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., McCormick & Co. and many other companies already offer new mothers a six-week paid leave. Mothers who use six weeks of disability leave and some accumulated sick days, and save their vacation time, can get 12 postpartum weeks off at some companies.

Most people can't afford a three-month break without pay, said Cecile K. Perich, McCormick compensation and benefits director. For single-earner families, it's almost out of the question, and even two-income families usually have lifestyles that demand both paychecks.

After all, Mrs. Perich said, the mortgage must be paid. "They don't give you a 12-week excuse from that."

Opponents' arguments don't reflect the experience of employers who already grant family leave, said Hilda E. Ford, secretary of personnel for the state of Maryland, which since 1988 has offered state workers a family leave policy similar to the proposed federal law.

"The world is not going to come to an end," she said. "All the hue and cry seems to have been generated in a vacuum."

To some executives, coping with family issues is part of a balanced corporate and personal life.

"I understand full well what people are going through," said Joe Simone, president of mamma ilardo's Corp., the Owings Mills-based pizza chain. Mr. Simone's 90-year-old mother is receiving hospice care. "All it has done is strengthened my resolve that people can't be sacrificed because business is more important. Your business is nothing if your people are not more important."

Productivity cost

Estimates of the measure's impact vary widely -- from about $200 million to more than $20 billion. And critics such as the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) say that anyone who welcomes the measure hasn't considered the true costs.

Even proponents of the bill concede that it will cost businesses in terms of lost productivity, the time needed to find and train replacement workers and possible misunderstandings with customers used to dealing with particular workers.

"If I lost a molecular biologist at a critical period of time, I couldn't replace him in three months," said Joseph Kelly, chief executive of Crop Genetics International of Hanover, a biotechnology company that develops pesticides. "These guys don't work for temporary help agencies."

That's true in businesses from architecture to investment banking, and companies from RTKL to Legg Mason Inc. cite it as the most troubling aspect of mandated family leave. Some entrepreneurs even say the bill could make them want to keep their employee count under 50.

"I could go over [50 workers] but I don't want to," said Chuck Worsham, vice president of 35-worker Professional Electronics Inc. in White Marsh. "There's business out there, but no way do I want the headaches."

Mr. Worsham has a practical beef and a philosophical complaint. Philosophically, he wants the right to replace a worker on leave if the replacement worker is more effective. The practical problem: Skilled workers at his company can lose necessary certification if they go three months without working -- and it can cost $2,000 to recertify a worker in soldering, for example.

"At a small business like ours, training is a very big cost," he said. "How can I hold a slot for four or five months, then say [to the temporary replacement], 'You're no longer needed -- goodbye?' "

Wendy Young, vice president of Sisk Fulfillment Services, a 75-worker corporate mass-mailing service firm in the Eastern Shore town of Federalsburg, has similar concerns -- up to a point.

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