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The cost of taking leave

TO those whose families are well established, ``parental leave'' may sound like a really good idea - two weeks' sabbatical off in the mountains somewhere, to be taken, say, the month the kids first discover rock music. To those struggling to start a family and hang onto their jobs at the same time, parental leave is more serious.

Bills have been working their way through both houses of the United States Congress that would mandate job protection for mothers and fathers who take time off to be with new babies.

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The business community has been, predictably, complaining about the costs of providing such leave, even though it would be unpaid.

Now the General Accounting Office has released its estimate of what the Senate bill, S249, would cost American businesses: no more than $500 million a year. There is ``no justification'' the GAO said, for the US Chamber of Commerce's estimate of $2.6 billion. (The chamber's original estimate of $16.2 billion melted down under sharp questioning from Sen. Christopher Dodd [D] of Connecticut, chief sponsor of S249.)

Meanwhile, in the House, a compromise has been reached which should render parental leave less unpalatable to business. The House bill, H925, like its Senate companion, originally called for 18 weeks of leave for parents with a newborn, newly adopted, or seriously ill child. The House bill also included provision for leave to care for an ill parent, and both bills had allowances for medical leave in the case of an employee's own illness.

The House bill compromise would cut the family leave to 10 weeks and the medical leave to 15 weeks. It would also exempt, for three years after the bill became law, employers of fewer than 50; after three years, exemption would fall to employers of fewer than 35. The original small-business ceiling was 15 employees.

The 50-employee ceiling would exempt 95 percent of the nation's employers, but still cover 44 percent of the work force.

This newspaper endorsed the original bill; if this compromise is what it takes to get a bill through, we can support it. Covering 44 percent is much better than covering zero percent, and the resulting experience record would be useful.

We are, after all, talking unpaid leave here; the clear message from congressional hearings on the legislation has been that job security is what's critical for new parents; paid leave is sheer fantasy.

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The GAO is preparing an estimate of costs to business of the revised House bill; a preliminary GAO estimate, however, suggests that the compromise would cost a third less than the under $500 million estimated for the Senate bill.

Business people, especially those running small enterprises, see parental leave as the thin edge of a wedge that would end up ``Europeanizing'' labor relations and bringing the great American job creation machine to a halt. Today parental leave, tomorrow mandatory health insurance, they worry.

These concerns are not to be dismissed cavalierly. But the cost structures of the American family, and the American economy, have changed dramatically within a generation. Workers have families, and families are more and more needing to have both parents in the work force. Businesses must accept that.

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