After Family Leave


February 09, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- Some things take longer than others. This time, it took eight years to get 12 weeks.

After all the seasons of wrangling and rewriting, voting and vetoing, the Family and Medical Leave Act is finally, actually and belatedly going to become law. You may share this news with any children conceived the same year as this bill -- 1985 -- before they head off to their third-grade class.

American workers may be about the last in the industrialized world to get family leave, but we're going to get it. Or at least many of us are.

The bill mandates up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers to care for a newborn or adopted child, or a critically ill family member . . . if.

If they work for companies with 50 or more employees. If they worked for these companies for a year. If they have worked at least 1,250 hours during the year. And if they aren't a critical worker in the top 10 percent of the company's pay scale. This centerpiece and center wrestling ring of family policy will cover about half the work force and it won't be much help to those who can't take time off without a paycheck. But do not let this heavy dose of reality rain on the parade. It is a victory.

It's a victory for 60,000 women -- by modest estimates -- who would have lost their jobs this year when they have babies. It's a victory for tens of thousands of family members who have just won job security and peace of mind. And it's a landmark in changing attitudes about family and work.

In 1985, the Family and Medical Leave Act was first introduced by Rep. Pat Schroeder as H.R. 2020 -- a number you wouldn't want in a bakery shop. The bill slogged through the halls of Congress during the Reagan years, the backlash era, and the ''mommy wars,'' bearing the enormous weight of arguments about women, work and family.

As Ellen Galinsky, of the Families and Work Institute remembers, ''Anything we did to make it easier to work was made to seem like an effrontery to women at home. Many in the debate felt that if we passed parental leave all the women would run out of their houses so fast they'd leave their doors flapping in the breeze.''

By 1992 all that stood between the bill and passage were a couple of presidential vetoes. George Bush found himself on the wrong side of the demography. By then, there were even more women in the workplace, more two-income families, more members of the ''sandwich generation'' caring for children and parents. During the election, family leave became a ''family value'' right along with the apple pie.

In the new Congress, the bill got a new number: One. It was the first bill up for a vote, and the first on the desk of the new president. In the end, not even the Republican senators had the stomach or the votes to derail it.

But what happens next? Family leave, even if it's eventually extended to smaller companies, only offers relief for the people in the tightest spots. What about the lifetime squeeze -- the long-running tension between work and family?

''My sense is that what happens to people when they return from leave is even more important than what happens on leave,'' says Fran Rodgers of Work/Family Directions. This is especially true for those returning from parental leave. ''They have the rest of their careers and the rest of their family lives ahead of them.''

There are new mothers who suddenly find themselves shunted off to new, lower, positions. There are others who would like flexible hours and can't find them or afford them.

The pressure on workers with families will remain, in one word, time. These days, the average workweek in large companies is between 45 and 50 hours. In the downsized, streamlined, shaken-up economy, there are two classes: the overworked and the unemployed. The same people trying to pay attention to families in the '90s are also paying attention to layoff notices. People are worried about their children and afraid for their jobs. It's a tough but critical moment for change.

The next changes are more likely to come from the corporate culture than Congress. They are already coming from companies that equate good family policies with good business sense, and from workers who are, in Ms. Rodgers' words, ''at the breaking point.''

In some ways, the yearly struggle over the leave bill kept us stuck in old arguments while we led new lives. Finally, we've won a huge fight for a modest gain. Think of this bill by its number. H.R. 1: the first step.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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