Skunks at the Picnic

February 01, 1993

Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., remarked the other day that she often feels like "the skunk at the picnic" for opposing the family-leave bill President Clinton and his Democratic friends are about to whoop into law. If it makes Senator Kassebaum feel any better, she has company in her skunkhood. This newspaper opposed the measure before and we oppose it again.

What, pray tell, could be wrong with a proposal that purports to help families by guaranteeing to 60 percent of all American employees that they can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new baby or the illness of a close relative? Only skunks, it would seem, could oppose a measure so reflective of the problems associated with this two-worker family era. Well, before voters are carried away let them consider some of the downsides of this idea.

First, it is another government mandate on business, which is another way of saying it is another government mandate that raises the cost of labor and makes this country less competitive in world markets.

Second, it is a bill that provides government-protected leave that can be afforded more by the affluent than by low-income people, who can hardly forgo their paychecks but sometimes have to take emergency time off even at risk to their jobs.

Third, it is contrary to the whole job-creation rhetoric of the Clinton crowd. When government dumps more mandated costs on employers -- whether for pensions or health care or accident coverage or family leave or retraining or whatever -- these employers are discouraged from hiring new workers. Mrs. Kassebaum rightly contends the pending measure "will do absolutely nothing for the chronically unemployed in this country."

Fourth, by excluding employees in companies with fewer than 50 workers, the measure sets up a two-tier system to the disadvantage of those (mostly lower-paid) workers in small businesses. It does not cover 95 percent of all employers or 40 percent of American workers.

Fifth, it will lower productivity by forcing the hiring of redundant or temporary workers, or by stressing out persons still on the job.

At the risk of losing eligibility for skunkhood, we must emphasize that we believe a liberal family-leave policy is a mark of good management. Smart employers will offer it, provided they can afford it. But we do object to the idea of still another government mandate on business, one that might prompt some employers to reduce other still-voluntary benefits to compensate. Nor are we impressed with the Republican alternative of a tax credit for employers who grant family leave. This is just another example of using the tax code for social engineering.

The optimum approach is the basket-benefit formula, a growing trend under which enlightened employers give their workers the choice of picking and weighing just which perks fit their needs and desires. The free market, not government control, should prevail.

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