Family Leave Time Is Good Business

Tremendous demographic changes are being felt in the U.S. workplace. In many families, both parents work--women account for 45% of the work force--and often the family must cope with ailing grandparents. All this has dramatically increased employees' need for help in caring for dependents young and old. A coalition led by ibm is already tackling one aspect of the problem, the dearth of adequate child and elder care. In early September, the group, composed of 137 companies and public entities, announced that it would put up $25 million to fund child- and elder-care programs in 44 locations around the country. While this isn't a lot of money--ibm alone pledged $9 million--it marks the largest effort so far in which companies and government have acted in unison on this problem.

An even more comprehensive approach is taken by the Family & Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to offer 12 weeks per year of unpaid leave to care for a new or sick child, a parent, or spouse. Congress first passed a family-leave bill in 1990, but President Bush vetoed it on the grounds that government shouldn't mandate corporate benefits. Congress has passed such a bill once more, and the President says he will veto it again. This would be a mistake. Last year, a nonprofit group called the Families & Work Institute released the most thorough study ever done of corporate-leave policies. The survey found that 83% of companies already offer an average of 11 weeks of maternity leave. It also found that 60% offer paternity leave. In any case, unpaid leaves represent a financial hardship, so the rate is unlikely to increase dramatically. Because it applies only to companies with more than 50 employees, the current bill exempts 95% of all companies and would impose a burden only on the minority of companies that don't feel the need to match their rivals' policies. The GOP's campaign emphasis on family values would be a lot more believable if President Bush ignored ideology and signed this modest family-leave legislation.