"Employer policies can still devastate our children's well-being. When a company can force a nursing mother back to work, when a company can deny a father or mother a chance to bond as a family with their newborn, when a company can deny a newly adopted child the hours of parental attention which may be the child's key to security and trust, or when a company can deny a seriously ill child in pain the comfort and care of loving parents, much has yet to be done."
This stirring plea on behalf of a national parental leave policy did not come from the head of a women's organization or a pediatrician. It came from a member of the international board of the United Mine Workers of America, Stephen F. Webber, who testified at a recent congressional hearing on parental and disability leave. He was not unaware of the impact of his presence.
"I can hear them now: What's an official of a macho male coal miners union doing in a place like this?" he said at the beginning of his testimony. His answer was fascinating. He said that during preparations for the 1983 union convention, which is held every four years, "local union resolutions calling for parental leave to be part of our bargaining agenda poured into the union headquarters. In line with our procedures, the issue was then raised in the appropriate convention committee and eventually brought before approximately 1,500 UMWA convention delegates who approved the demand by acclamation."
In the 1984 negotiations over a national coal contract, he said, parental leave "was one of the few union demands that was aggressively pursued in addition to the difficult task of securing a contract that met our membership's direction of 'no backward steps and no take-aways and advances in job security protection.' "
The union wanted a provision that entitled a father or mother to a six-month unpaid leave to care for a newborn child, newly adopted child or seriously ill child, he said. In the end, all it could get from the coal producers was an agreement to set up a joint study committee on parental leave that was to prepare a report on the feasibility of such a plan. He said that would be the basis for the next round of negotiations on the issue.
The UMWA, he said, has about a quarter of a million members, about 1,500 of whom are women. Webber spoke eloquently about fathers who need to assume extra responsibilities at home when a mother is incapacitated, about fathers who want to care for new babies while the mothers return to work, about adoptive parents who want time at home with their new child, and about parents of sick children.
He told of a woman miner from Indiana who travels to Texas to visit her daughter who is institutionalized there. "She lives in fear, however, that one more emergency trip may cause her employer to terminate her."
And he told of a woman miner whose 5-year-old is comatose after choking on a piece of food two years ago. "As a single parent, she had to assume 24-hour care of her son and could not return to work unless other nursing arrangements were in place. Here is a woman who worked in the mines until four days before giving birth because she could not afford to leave her job. Now a cruel twist of fate has left her without options. Had a parental leave program been in place, a parent in her situation at least would have had a chance of restoring some degree of stability to his or her life."
In a later interview, Webber said a miner can now miss five unexcused days in a 180-day period and then can face disciplinary action, leading to discharge.
He said the membership's emphasis on parental leave surprised the leadership. "It caused us to realize that the whole issue of parenting is not just from the women's perspective. There are more and more men that want to take part in that. I don't think that making it that strong a mandate was just to protect the female part of our organization. It was imperative they have it for everybody."
The Parental Leave and Disability Act introduced by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) would require employers to allow up to 26 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for accidents, illness or other nonoccupational disabilities and 18 weeks of leave for parents to care for newborn, newly adopted, or seriously ill children.
The point was made repeatedly at the hearing that the United States is the only industrialized country that does not have a national leave policy. Webber's testimony spoke volumes not only about the need for it, but also about the changes in the American family. The macho coal miner wants to stay home with his daughter.