Family leave would aid public sector employees


February 03, 1993|By Ellen J. Silberman | Ellen J. Silberman,States News Service The New York Times contributed to this column.

WASHINGTON -- When the federal government regulates business, the message often seems to be: Do as we say, not as we do.

But under the proposed Family and Medical Leave Act, the government would give its workers the same benefits that employers in the rest of the country would give theirs.

The bill, as approved by House and Senate committees last week, would give each federal employee up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. Federal workers also would be able to take time off to care for a sick child, spouse or parent, or to recuperate from an illness.

Health benefits would continue throughout the leave, under the bill. And federal workers would be guaranteed their old jobs back or an "equivalent" position when the leave ends, according to the measure. In the private sector, companies with more than 50 employees would have to offer the same leave policies, under the bill.

Currently, Social Security Administration employees can use annual leave, sick leave or an unpaid leave of absence to take care of any personal problems. The agency encourages supervisors to accommodate employees' needs, but decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, said Phil Gambino, an SSA spokesman.

"The bottom line is really the relationship you have with your supervisor," said Lynn Eppard, legislative director of Federally Employed Women, one of many employee advocacy groups supporting the leave bill.

"Having something written into law is something you can count on. . . . This is long overdue," said Janice Lachance, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, a federal union that is lobbying hard for the bill.

SSA hasn't taken a position on the bill. Neither has the Senior Executive Association, a group that represents many of the agency's managers.

Still, Carol Bonosaro, SEA president, spoke in favor of the bill, saying it makes sense for the federal government to include itself when it regulates big business. From the supervisor's point of view, she said, it is better to give a valued employee leave to handle a family crisis than to work with "a distracted employee for three months."

L In the private sector, the cost of unpaid leave is an issue.

A study commissioned by the U.S. Small Business Administration put the cost of unpaid leave at between 97 cents and $97 a week, depending on the size of a company and the employee's managerial level. The SBA put the average cost at $6.70 for each covered employee each year.

This week, the General Accounting Office estimated that continuing the health care benefits for both public and private sector employees during family leaves could cost up to $674 million annually. But the Congressional Budget Office predicted that the actual federal cost would be closer to zero.

CBO believes that because many federal employees would not be replaced while they are on leave, the cost of their continued benefits would be offset.

The bill is expected to gain House and Senate approval this week and reach President Clinton's desk later this month. The president supports family leave and has said he is looking forward to signing the bill. President Bush vetoed similar legislation in 1990 and 1992.


President Clinton has revoked two election-year orders by President Bush that were particularly hated by the labor leaders, who supported Clinton in his presidential bid.

Late Monday afternoon, Clinton signed an executive order rescinding an order issued by Bush April 14 that had required federal contractors to post notices informing non-union workers that, under the terms of a Supreme Court decision, they were not obliged to join unions and they had the right to stop unions from using money collected in lieu of dues for political activities the workers opposed.

Clinton also reversed an executive order signed by Bush Oct. 23 that forbids the federal agencies and contractors hired by the government from requiring workers on federally financed construction projects to be members of unions.

The Bush administration generally sided with those who argued that unions have too much power in the workplace, and that the government should actively encourage the spread of measures designed to reduce the ability of unions to limit hiring to union members.

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