Family Leave May Not Be That Big A Hardship For Business

Since President Bush vetoed a family leave bill last year, a central question has been how many employers already offer maternity leave. Conventional wisdom held--and the bill's opponents argued--that many small employers would be crushed if the government forced them to give workers 12 weeks off, as the bill would provide.

Now, a new study is shattering some preconceptions about maternity leave. A nonprofit New York group, the Families & Work Institute, surveyed employers in four states: Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island. The finding: Most companies, even the smallest, already offer lots of leave to mothers of infants.

The study doesn't address other parts of the bill, which Congress likely will pass again this year. But on maternity leave, "it shows that the law would just formalize the practice that companies already follow," says Ellen Galinsky, co-president of the Families & Work Institute.

The measure has been hotly contested, in part because reliable surveys of company practices have been hard to come by. In 1989, a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of companies with 100 or more employees found that only 41% of full-time employees were covered by leave policies. However, antagonists on both sides of the debate thought that number was too low. The suspected flaw: the BLS asked companies what their formal policies were rather than what they actually do.

The Institute tried to dig deeper. It chose four states where mandatory maternity leave legislation had recently been passed so it could compare policies before and after the new laws. To blunt charges of bias, it convened panels with some two dozen experts in each state from all sides of the issue, including chambers of commerce and local arms of the National Federation of Independent Business, two strong opponents of mandatory parental leave. The panels devised questions for the survey, which was run by Washington State University using samples of more than 1,000 employers per state.

The survey found that only 25% of employers have written leave policies. However, even without mandatory legislation, 83% said they allowed women time off after the birth of a child (table). One big surprise: Small companies granted leave as often as big ones. Even among companies with fewer than 10 employees, 79% said they guaranteed jobs of women on leave.

DADS LAG. As a result, the state laws had little impact on what the employers already were doing. Vince Mekkers may be typical. President of First Federal Savings & Loan Assn. of McMinnville, Ore., he has 55 employees in four branches and headquarters. First Federal did allow maternity leave before Oregon required it three years ago, but only for six weeks. Since then, half a dozen of the 45 female employees have taken the full 12 weeks the new law provides. Mekkers thinks this may be too much, but he concedes it hasn't hurt the thrift. "If anything, it's more of a problem for the other employees, who have to pick up the slack," Mekkers says. "But we haven't had any financial difficulties or problems serving customers."

The bill, however, has other provisions that could boost employers' costs. For instance, among companies with health insurance plans, only 67% continue to pay for coverage during maternity leave. The federal bill would require all companies to do so. In addition, only 60% of employers allow time off for fathers, who also would be entitled to 12 weeks under the proposed federal law.

Proponents of the bill note that only Northern states with relatively strong organized labor were surveyed. Companies in less union-oriented states may be less generous. "Also, a law would make the 17% of companies that don't offer leave get in line with what everyone else does," argues Donna R. Lenhoff, legal policy director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund.

Nor are opponents budging. Tracy Wurzel, the legislative representative at the National Federation of Independent Business, says that even if the study is accurate, "the government shouldn't tell employers how to run their business." Just because the study has added a few facts to the debate doesn't mean it will become any less heated.

      Based on a survey in Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin
                                       Number of employees            Average all
                                     Under 10  10-20   21-49    50+  companies
      Companies offering
      maternity leave                      79%     89%     83%     84%  83%
      Companies that con-
      tinue health benefits                66%     78%     61%     67%  67%
      Average weeks
      allowed                              9.1    12.7     11     13.111.3
      Companies of all sizes offering paternity leave: 60%
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