New law protects jobs for many needing leave

August 05, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer The Cox News Service contributed to this report.

Caught between job and family responsibilities? The squeeze may ease a bit as the long-awaited Family and Medical Leave Act goes into effect today.

The new federal law gives some employees the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work to tend to family or medical needs while retaining their health insurance and their jobs, or comparable ones, when they return.

The law is designed to give workers time off to recover from medical problems, or care for a newborn or adopted child, or an ailing relative. While women are expected to derive the most benefit from the law -- given that many are the primary caregivers in their families -- the law applies equally to men and women, married or single.

The Department of Labor department estimates that 45 million workers -- or about 40 percent of the work force -- are covered, including those who work for local, state and federal governments.

About 40 percent of the work force qualifies for leaves under the new act, according to a Labor Department estimate. To qualify, workers must have held their jobs for at least a year and worked 1,250 hours or more that year. Only companies that employ 50 or more people must provide family or medical leaves, and bosses can exempt 10 percent of their highest-paid employees.

The larger limitation on who can take advantage of the family leave act, however, may be simple economics: Some workers can't afford to go without a paycheck for up to 12 weeks.

"It is true that people who can afford to take unpaid leave are going to be the ones who take it for longer periods of time," says Donna Lenhoff, general counsel for the Women's Legal Defense Fund, one of the groups that lobbied for the law. "But, one of the most important protections under the law is for the low-income people, who can least afford to lose their jobs if they have to take a leave."

In the past, such employees may have been fired if they had to take extended time off, she says.

It's not clear exactly how many people will benefit from the law, or how much their absences will cost their bosses.

The General Accounting Office estimates that 2.5 million workers a year will encounter family circumstances qualifying them for leave. The cost of maintaining health care coverage for that many people would be about $674 million, according to the GAO.

The law has many supporters, including 9to5, National Association of Working Women.

"It helps strengthen families by allowing care-givers to be present when they are most needed, and it helps business by cutting down on turnover costs and creating a more loyal work force," said Cindia Cameron of 9to5's Southeastern office in Atlanta.

However, she added another line to the list of the the law's drawbacks: About half the work force remains unprotected.

The most ardent critics of the law are those small business operators who resent the government regulation and fear the costs and headaches they expect to come with it.

It's expensive to grant 12-week leaves with benefits, as well as hiring and training a temporary employee, said Marty Cohen, director of policy studies with the Work In America Institute Inc., a nonprofit research group in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Whatever its impact, the law puts the United States on a trail that other countries blazed years ago. Germany provided maternity benefits to employed women in the 19th century, and Britain, France and Italy passed their first laws before World War I.

Most European countries now provide for paid maternity leaves.

But, said 9to5's Cindia Cameron, "Most Americans are struggling to keep families and jobs in order at the same time, and they need some help."

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