President Bush was ill-advised to veto the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was passed with bipartisan support in Congress. The act is a moderate and appropriate response to dramatic changes in the American work force as women and single parents, particularly at lower income levels, make up an ever larger proportion of the employee base in many companies and as men take on different roles in the family.

Moreover, it is an important piece of legislation because it recognizes that each employee is a whole person with a life that extends beyond the work place. Employer support of the employee and her or his family is as important as safety and a minimum wage. The House would do well to override this veto in its scheduled vote today.

Essentially, the act would require firms with 50 or more employees to grant up to 12 unpaid weeks of leave in connection with the birth or adoption of a child or to care for a sick child, spouse or parent. During the leave, the employee's health insurance coverage would continue (along with the leave taker's obligation, if any, to pay a share of the premium). At the end of the leave, the employee would be entitled to the job she or he left or a comparable one.

And that's it. The exemption for firms with fewer than 50 employees would mean that 95 percent of employers -- and 44 percent of employees -- would not be covered at all.

So we are really for the most part only talking about large businesses, most of which have far more generous parental leave programs than the one called for by the vetoed measure.

For example, at Control Data, a maternity leave can mean at least five months' leave at 65 percent of regular pay, and in some circumstances to even longer periods at 60 percent of pay.

A Minnesota statute in effect since August of 1987 mandates -- for firms with 21 or more employees -- a minimum six weeks of unpaid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child, with ensured return to the same or a similar job. I know of no problems that this state law, which is very much like the proposed federal law, has caused Minnesota businesses.

The president vetoed the bill on the ground that the federal government should not mandate how employers treat their employees. This argument was pressed on him by most of the lobbying groups purporting to speak for the business community.

In the absence of generally accepted business standards of conduct toward employees, congressional mandates not only ensure fair treatment of workers but also nullify the advantage companies that do not treat their employees fairly would have over those who do. While most firms treat employees fairly, many do not. So over the years Congress has mandated a safe work place, a minimum wage and overtime pay, a pension and disability plan we call Social Security, pregnancy leave at least equal to leave benefits extended for any other physical condition rendering an employee unable to work, a vesting schedule for company pension plans and so forth.

Another argument advanced by the bill's opponents was that its cost -- estimated by the General Accounting Office at about $4.50 annually per employee -- would make it harder to compete in world trade. Not only is the cost trivial but nobody should argue that we require lower wages in the United States to match lower wages in the Pacific Basin or less effective pollution controls because foreign firms are spared such costs.

Moreover, our chief trade competitors, Germany and Japan -- indeed, apparently all industrial nations except South Africa -- have mandated family leave programs far more expensive per employee than the vetoed bill.

The real issue for American businesses and the federal government is what steps need to be taken to make the United States more competitive in world markets. Energy devoted to challenging an overdue and moderate piece of legislation is swinging at the wrong ball. Business opposition to this piece of legislation perpetuates the public perception that corporate managers believe that well-managed businesses are inconsistent with the enhancement of human values and the empowerment of employees.

In fact, enlightened and successful businesses have led the way on family leave and a number of other similar issues. With regard to the family leave issue, the president needs to hear a different business voice from the one to which he apparently listened.

The writer is president and chief executive officer of Control Data.