A California woman took eight weeks off from her job after a cesarean delivery and returned to work only to find someone else had her job and she was out of work. A hospital worker in Louisiana requested a leave of absence when she was disabled in the second trimester of pregnancy; she was terminated. A nurse in Alabama asked her employer for several weeks off following delivery and was told she could return only if her job was not filled.

Jim Nulanz of Fairfax County broke his leg playing football and lost his job driving a van for a printing company. His wife, Mary, missed work because of car problems, then because of the flu, and she lost her job. In February, they and their two children were featured in a Washington Post story about the "New Homeless," who were crowded into area shelters.

People in these circumstances are the reasons behind the Parental and Disability Leave Act of 1985, which was introduced earlier this month in Congress by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.).

The bill would require all employers to provide a minimum of 26 weeks' leave for employes who are temporarily disabled through nonoccupational causes with guaranteed reinstatement to their job. It also would require a minimum of 18 weeks' leave for any employe who decided to stay home to take care of a newborn, newly adopted or seriously ill child, with a guaranteed reinstatement to the same job. It also would allow employes to work reduced schedules as long as the total parental leave does not exceed 39 weeks.

In both disability and parental leave cases, the bill also would require employers to continue health insurance coverage for the employe under the same payment schedules in effect before the leave. Seniority and pensions also would be protected during the leave.

Supporters of the bill point out that 75 countries provide for some form of paid maternity leave and job protection, and that the United States is the only industrialized country that does not. A fact sheet prepared by the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues points out that 80 percent of working women are likely to become pregnant during their working lives. More than half of the mothers of children aged 3 to 5 now work, and almost half of the mothers with children younger than 3 were working in 1982.

The fact sheet supports an earlier Labor Department finding that most women work because of financial need. More than 6 million working women are single heads of families; 27 percent of working married women have husbands earning less than $10,000 and 41 percent of them are married to husbands who earn less than $15,000. Women in these circumstances aren't working for pin money and they cannot afford to jeopardize their job security.

Employment policies, however, simply have not kept up with the changing American family, often forcing parents -- usually the mother -- to choose between job security and child.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 makes illegal any discriminatory act by an employer based on an employe's pregnancy. Thus, a pregnancy-related disability must be treated as any other short-term disability. If the employer has no disability provisions for employes, however, and federal law currently does not require this, the pregnant woman is as vulnerable as a male employe who breaks his leg.

A Columbia University study of 250 employers done in 1980 found that only about half provided any kind of disability insurance for their employes; a third provided no sick leave at all; 25 percent required four to six months of service before an employe could qualify and another 25 percent required a year's service. Only 72 percent of the employers guaranteed that a woman could return to her job and retain her seniority if she took maternity leave. Not surprisingly, the employers least likely to provide good benefits in these areas were those in which females or part-time employes make up much of the work force.

In introducing the Parental and Disability Leave Act, Schroeder said: "American women are in the labor force to stay. We must foster employment policies that recognize the financial and nurturing responsibilities of today's parents."

The last thing a new mother needs is to have to choose between her child and job security. What she does need is a few months to recuperate from pregnancy, to get to know her baby and how to take care of it, and time to make reliable child care arrangements. She and the child would be far better off with guaranteed leave, and in the long run, so would employers.