One of the bright spots on the Hill this summer has been the passage by two House committees of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which would substantially improve leave policies in many of the nation's work places in order to help workers do a better job of balancing the demands of work and families.

The bill, sponsored in the House by Reps. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and William Clay (D-Mo.) and in the Senate by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), would provide workers up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave for the care of a newborn, newly adopted or seriously ill child or seriously ill parent -- the last being an important feature just added in committee. For at least 18 weeks, workers would be guaranteed that they could get their job back. The bill allows up to 26 weeks of unpaid, job- guaranteed leave for someone who is disabled or seriously ill. It covers all federal employes except congressional staff members, and calls for a commission to study ways to provide salary replacement for workers who take these leaves.

The original House bill would have extended coverage to all employers with five or more employes, but that minimum was raised to 15, the same as in the bill introduced in the Senate. Rep. Clay argued against an amendment sponsored by Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) that would have raised the level to businesses with more than 50 employes, claiming that it would leave 31 million employes exempt from protection. She also unsuccessfully attempted to have the parental leave periods trimmed from 18 to eight weeks and medical leaves from 26 to 13 weeks.

The House committee action clears the bill for a floor vote. It currently has 103 sponsors, 89 Democrats and 14 Republicans. The Senate has yet to have hearings on the measure.

Leave policies in the United States are extremely uneven. A survey of Fortune 1500 companies by Catalyst, a New York-based research organization, found that 51.8 percent of them offered some unpaid parental leave for women with a job guarantee, 37 percent offered some unpaid paternity leave, and 95 percent offered some short-term disability leave.

Earlier this year, Schroeder released a report showing that the federal government, the nation's largest employer, has no uniform policy for parental or medical leave and that in many cases, office requests are handled at the discretion of supervisors.

A recent study by the Joint Economic Committee noted that between 1973 and 1985 the number of mothers in the labor force more than doubled, and that 62 percent of American mothers are working outside the home today. The largest increase came in women in two-parent families and mothers with very young children, more than half of whom are working. Hence the pressure for federal minimum standards on such matters as family and medical leave policies so that working women are not placed in impossible situations of having to choose between caring for a newborn or an elderly parent and losing their jobs.

Further, the Joint Economic Committee report underscores the importance of working mothers' contributions to the economic stability of their families and thus, the importance of creating a social infrastructure that allows them to continue to do so.

Before 1973, the report said, family income increased nearly every year, usually setting records. But "the level of family income experienced in 1973 has not been matched since. In 1984, median family income was 6.2 percent below the 1973 level." The decline hit young workers and families with young children particularly hard. In 1973, a 30-year-old male earned an average of $25,253 (in 1986 dollars); by 1983, that had dropped to $18,763.

"Clearly," the report noted, "if only the father worked in an average young two-parent family in the 1980s, there would be a drastic decline in family income as compared to 1973. The decline could be more than offset, however, if the 25-to-34-year-old wife in that young family went to work full time."

The Current Population Survey finds that such a wife would earn an average of $305 a week, about 25 percent less than a male counterpart. The report found that, on average, income for two-parent families declined by 3.1 percent between 1973 and 1984, but "the decline would have been 9.5 percent if mothers had not increased their work force participation and their earnings," or three times as much.

These are not families that are getting rich; they are getting by and retaining a foothold in the middle class because both parents are working. They are protecting their families -- and it is imperative to have public policies that protect their ability to do so.