It took nine years and the election of President Clinton to get the Family and Medical Leave Act passed. Despite the dire predictions of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and like-minded organizations, the U.S. economy did not collapse.
Indeed, in the six years since Clinton signed the bill into law, the nation has enjoyed a record economic boom. Some 20 million Americans, who work for companies that employ 50 or more people, have taken up to 12 weeks off to care for newborns, newly adopted children or seriously ill family members or to recuperate from their own illnesses. They have been able to keep their jobs and their health insurance.
But the law requires only that employers provide unpaid leave. The bipartisan Family Leave Commission, set up under the 1993 law, found that nearly one in 10 employees who take family leave have to go on public assistance. The commission also found that two-thirds of employees who needed family leave but did not take it cited lost wages as the reason.
The National Partnership for Women & Families, which led the long, difficult fight to get the Family and Medical Leave Act passed, has launched a campaign to address what President Judith L. Lichtman calls the "next obvious generation of problems" -- providing income support to workers who take this essential time off.
The federal law provides job security, which is a major step in resolving conflicts between work and family. But it does not provide income security, which is common in the workplaces of other major industrial nations, but had no chance of getting through Congress.
Today, there is enormous popular support for some form of income insurance during family leave. And (note well, George W. Bush) it is highest among younger Republican women.
A survey conducted for the National Partnership in February 1998, found that support cuts across lines of sex, age, income, family structure and political affiliation: The idea is supported by 79 percent of all Americans and by 82 percent of women and 75 percent of men. Support is highest among Democrats, at 85 percent. Independents are next, at 79 percent, and Republicans are last, at a still hefty 71 percent.
But look at younger women, those under than 45, and the Republican support tops the charts. The survey found 91 percent of Republican and of independent women and 89 percent of Democratic women younger than 45 favor this.
The partnership's Campaign for Family Leave Income will have six main components, including researching and designing test models into providing such income. President Clinton's budget for fiscal 2000 calls for $10 million for research on income options. "That's to do research not only on what aid during leave will cost, but also how much does it cost us as a nation not to provide it," Lichtman says. "If you have employees who lose jobs, you have to replace them, you have lost productivity, and retraining costs, and there are costs that get shifted over to welfare."
With a blue-ribbon, bipartisan advisory committee, the campaign also will serve as a clearinghouse for advocates and researchers sharing information and strategies they are using in various state efforts, for that is where the action is going to be.
Four states, including Maryland, already have sought federal direction in how they can make unemployment compensation available. "Right now, you have to be ready, willing and available to work," to get such compensation, Lichtman says. That could be expanded to cover people taking leave for circumstances defined under the family leave law.
President Clinton gave that idea a big push three weeks ago when he issued a directive telling the U.S. Department of Labor to order states to use unemployment compensation more flexibly for family and medical leave purposes. The federal government sets forth the guidelines that control state unemployment compensation programs. The directive, Lichtman says, "is a really big deal." Clinton also ordered the Office of Personnel Management to allow federal employees to use up to 60 days of sick leave for family and medical emergencies, up from the current 13.
Other states are considering using temporary disability insurance, or TDI, to cover family leave, Lichtman says. This is already being done in Hawaii, California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico. Many states have "huge surpluses in their TDI accounts," she says. "Some states are talking about a separate family leave benefit that would come out of a family leave income trust. That would provide direct subsidies to people on leave.
"Our intent here is to be creative about solutions that are going to make a real difference in the lives of families."
The campaign for the Family and Medical Leave Act began in 1983, and Democratic and Republican women in Congress quickly emerged as key backers. It was a long and tough fight. Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) went so far as to blast her Republican colleagues publicly for failing to understand the need to help workers. Congress passed the bill twice -- and it was twice vetoed by President George Bush, he of the family values set. It will be interesting to see if the sins of the father come back to haunt the son.
The advisory panel for the campaign was formed six months ago, and major efforts are already underway in nine states to get income insurance. "The momentum is accelerating at a far greater pace than I would have said six months ago," Lichtman says.
This is an encouraging assessment from someone who has been in the trenches of the family leave fight since the beginning. With popular support for income insurance for family leave at such high levels, this next generation of benefits should be developed and enacted swiftly and surely. New babies and medical emergencies often carry added costs making it even harder for families to forgo income. They should not have to make this choice.