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Support for working parents

REP. Patricia Schroeder's parental-leave bill, if passed, would help bring the American workplace more into tune with the times. Such an adjustment is vitally necessary and long overdue.

The Schroeder bill would require all employers with more than five employees to grant 18 weeks' unpaid leave to any employee, male or female, at the birth or adoption of a child, or in case of serious illness of a child. Parents taking such leave would be guaranteed the same or a similar job, with equal status, pay, and benefits.

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The Colorado Democrat is clearly taking the half-a-loaf approach here; she would like to provide paid leave, so that the less affluent could take better advantage of it. But political realities dictate otherwise. Her bill does provide, though, for a commission to study the feasibility of a paid-leave program, modeled on the temporary disability income programs some states have, with a funding mechanism not unlike those of unemployment insurance programs.

There has been predictable criticism of the proposal from various employer groups -- but perhaps less strident than might be expected. Experience in Britain with a program similar to the Schroeder proposal suggests that it was popular with employers, leading to benefits in productivity and morale and costing relatively little.

In any case, this is a very small step; other countries do much more to protect families this way. By and large, US workplaces are still organized as if their employees had no families, and as if women didn't make up half the work force.

Of course, the rise of women into more ``indispensable'' positions in corporate America has helped raise employers' consciousness on family issues. We remember reading of one bank that decided to rethink its pregnancy and maternity policies when it realized it had eight pregnant vice-presidents.

Still, in discussions on the pros and cons of various proposals for a better mesh of work life and family life, the business community so often comes off sounding as if it had forgotten why a national economy is organized in the way it is. Goods and services are produced for the benefit of consumers -- families, individuals in their home life.

The knowledge that they are providing for their families is what keeps many parents going through a long, hard day on the job.

And without children there are no consumers to buy products, no employees to work in the factories to make the products, no investors to buy stock to help build the factory in the first place.

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Perhaps future generations will see the development of the no-fuss, no-muss, easy-care child, analogous to the no-iron bed sheet and the frost-free refrigerator. For the time being, though, little ones need lots of attention, and passage of the Schroeder bill would help them get it.

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