A significant compromise has been engineered in the House version of the Family and Medical Leave Act in an attempt to quiet opposition from businesses, particularly small businesses that claimed they did not have the flexibility and resources to comply with more generous leave policies. The compromise puts the United States one step closer toward joining the rest of the industrialized world in recognizing that workers have families.

As originally introduced by Reps. William Clay (D-Mo.) and Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), the bill would have allowed workers to take up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave during a two-year period for the birth, adoption or serious illness of a child or parent and up to 26 weeks of unpaid medical leave it they are seriously ill. Workers would be guaranteed that they could return to their old jobs or comparable ones. The original legislation exempted employers with fewer than 15 employes.

While the leave was unpaid, businesses were quick to predict that the family leave would be costly and unduly burdensome. The Family and Medical Leave Act swiftly became the battleground for a larger fight that has been looming on the horizon for some time over federal efforts to force businesses to provide certain types of benefits, such as health insurance.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce testified before the Senate subcommittee on Children, Families, Drugs and Alcoholism that the family leave provisions of the original bill alone would cost businesses $16.2 billion dollars a year. Under sharp questioning by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), the chief sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, the chamber returned with a revised figure of $2.6 billion on the cost to business. And that has been challenged as excessive by the Government Accounting Office, which has agreed to submit its own estimate at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Oct. 29.

Hearings were not scheduled in the Senate until this year, when the Democrats held a majority of the seats. Since then, Dodd has held a series of hearings on the bill around the country. "We found out that there are a lot more parents who have lost their jobs {after having babies} than we had anticipated," says Marsha Renwanz, subcommittee staff director. "What was most important to these parents was not paid leave but job protection."

The National Association of Women Business Owners was among the women's groups caught between the interests of working women, who would be most helped by the family leave provision of the bill, and its business interests. Women now account for 25 percent of all owners of small businesses.

Fred Feinstein, staff director for the House subcommittee on labor and management, says a compromise bill has been worked out with Schroeder and Clay, Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee and Rep. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), the ranking Republican on the full committee on Education and Labor. Reps. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who is the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues, also has agreed to support the compromise.

The small employer exemption has been raised to 50 people for the first three years. Unless Congress acts, that exemption will then drop to 35 people. Meanwhile, the act calls for a bipartisan committee to look at the impact of the measure so Congress can make adjustments.

The bill cuts back the maximum amount of family leave to 10 weeks and of medical leave to 15 weeks. An employer would be able to exempt the top 10 percent of his employes, based on salary, if he can show a business necessity for doing so. An employe has to be on the job for a year before being eligible for leave, as opposed to three months stipulated in the original bill. Also, a employe must work at least 20 hours a week to be eligible.

A bill that exempts businesses with fewer than 50 employes would exempt about 95 percent of the nation's businesses, according to Feinstein. Ninety percent would be exempted if the ceiling drops to 35 people. But, he says, the compromise bill would cover about 44 percent of the work force. "You are covering milllions and millions of workers who are not currently covered. You are hoping small employers when they are able to do so will follow the lead."

Congress is balancing rights and protections of workers against the needs of business. Minimum standards for family and medical leave are long overdue and what Congress is doing now is setting a floor for these standards, not a ceiling. What the bill's backers now need to be very mindful of is that the compromise isn't gutted.