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A victory for families

THE US Supreme Court has upheld, 6 to 3, a California law requiring employers to grant up to four months of unpaid leave to women disabled by pregnancy and childbirth, even if similar leaves are not granted for other disabilities. Justice Thurgood Marshall's opinion held that the law promotes equal employment opportunity because it ``allows women, as well as men, to have families without losing their jobs.''

This welcome decision shows that the court understands the importance of women's earnings to their families. Price structures in the US economy - for housing, cars, schooling, just about anything you can think of - are now built on the assumption of the dual-income household. It is wives' earnings that keep many middle-class households in the middle class. And of course in many families, there is no father. The ``secondary'' income is the only income.

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And so the California law, with its requirements for leave and for job security for the employee, is a helpful one. It could impel some employers to find reasons not to hire a woman. But these are probably the same employers who have found reasons not to hire or promote women all along - particularly in small businesses, where hiring procedures are less formal, and in professional and managerial situations, where more-subjective factors come into play.

To hear many in the business community protest the court decision, one wouldn't realize how minimal the law actually is. It would not ordinarily apply throughout pregnancy, nor would it provide the full four months' leave except in case of special health problems. It does not provide time off to care for newborns. In any case, the leave is unpaid.

And so a federal parental-leave law, such as the ones introduced into the House and Senate, respectively, by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, Rep. William Clay (D) of Missouri, and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, is an idea whose time has come. These two bills would require job security for any mother or father taking up to four months' unpaid leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted, or seriously ill child.

The sex-neutrality of this approach would settle any lingering doubts about reverse discrimination against men, as were raised - by some mainstream feminist groups, among others - in the California case.

There are economic arguments to be considered here. The business community - notably the Chamber of Commerce of the US - has protested both the California law and the parental-leave bill, charging that they would cost employers untold sums. Temporary workers would have to be hired, other employees moved around to fill gaps, and so on, they charge. The result would be increased unemployment and a notable dampening of job creation by small entrepreneurs.

The argument is not to be dismissed out of hand; job creation is distinctly not the long suit of many of the European countries whose family policies are so often hailed as models of progressivism. But in fact, parental leave has been found in some of those countries to be a relatively inexpensive program, with major payoffs in terms of morale and work-force stability.

The California decision will have immediate repercussions for the several states with similar laws. It should have a longer-term effect of opening the door on nationwide parental leave.

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