ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 16 -- A coalition of women's organizations, unions and citizen groups banded together today to promote legislation guaranteeing workers the right to up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid family leave.

The coalition, calling itself the Family Leave Task Force and claiming to represent 43 organizations composed of more than a million state residents, said family leave is the most important item in the spectrum of day care issues that will come before the General Assembly this year.

"Employees should not have to trade job security for the care of their families," coalition spokeswoman Awilda Marquez said at a news conference. Legislation backed by the coalition would ensure that employees in public and private sectors can take time off without pay for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a sick parent, child or spouse.

Currently, workers who take time off for such reasons are not legally assured of getting their jobs back.

The push for family leave today coincided with a hearing on some of the Schaefer administration's day care initiatives, and it comes at a time when a broad-based constituency favoring better and more readily available child care has put the issue on the national agenda.

Responding to the demands of dual-career baby boom families, Congress and state legislatures across the country are considering proposals this year to increase support for child care. Seven states have passed legislation guaranteeing workers unpaid leave in some circumstances.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer is asking the legislature to approve a centralized state system for regulating day care centers. His proposal, designed to make it easier for people to open day care facilities, would make day care licensing and inspection uniform throughout the state.

The governor's package also calls for direct loans to people interested in opening day care centers and the creation of a state day care coordinator to oversee regulations and help industry get involved in providing day care to employees. Schaefer also wants to step up spending for subsidized day care this year to finance slots for 800 children.

But the administration's only position on family leave, the top priority for the groups that gathered at today's news conference, is a proposal that would give state employees unpaid time to care for a child, but not during periods when there is a high demand for their work.

Members of the Family Leave Task Force include representatives of the AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, consumer organizations as well as church and senior citizen groups.

Coalition members said they believe that guaranteed family leave is not only good for employees, it is good for business as well, fostering morale and enhancing a company's recruitment abilities. Costs to business and industry would be "minimal," they said.

However, the state Chamber of Commerce and other business groups are opposed to such legislation because they think it limits an employer's ability to get work done and preempts a company's right to set or negotiate working conditions with employees.

Coalition members said they will devote energies to passing a family leave bill sponsored by Del. Joan Pitkin (D-Prince George's). The bill would cover public and private employees who work more than 20 hours a week and who have been on the job at least a year. Only companies that employ 21 or more workers would be required to provide the unpaid leave time.

The bill would require companies to continue to make health insurance available during the leave period, although the employee might have to pay for it.

Marquez and other coalition members cited changing societal patterns in advocating the need for leave time. The work force in Maryland, they said, is currently 51 percent female and nearly one-fifth of those women work for companies where there is no job-protected maternity leave.

In addition, they said, it is becoming increasingly difficult for families to find ways to care for elderly parents when they get ill, or even to care for children who can't go to school or day care centers because of illnesses.