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Was Scrooge a Pioneer Care-giver?

WHEN Ebenezer Scrooge wanted to make life grim for his faithful clerk, Bob Cratchit, in 19th-century London, he forced him to work on Christmas Eve. Only grudgingly did he give him Christmas Day off, growling, ``Be here all the earlier next morning!'' If old Ebenezer still headed the firm of Scrooge & Marley today, he could harass Mr. Cratchit (who would now almost certainly be part of a dual-career family, with all those little Cratchits to feed) in another way: by refusing to allow him time off, even without pay, during a family emergency.

``You're telling me you need to stay home next week to care for Tiny Tim, your crippled son?'' Scrooge might say, sneering at the request. ``Sorry, Cratchit, you're fired.''

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For some employees around the country, that fictional scenario rings all too true. In experiences told in offices, factories, and legislative hearings, sad stories abound.

In Illinois, one woman lost her job when she needed time off to care for her mother. Although she tried to negotiate a compromise with her employer, he refused to consider alternatives.

In Connecticut, a husband lost a lucrative job because he had to take time to care for his wife, who was ill and in a wheelchair.

And just last month in New Hampshire, a father was fired when he failed to return to work as a salesman because his one-week-old son was undergoing open heart surgery.

Add to these cases the unknown numbers of workers who dare not even ask for time off because they fear harsh consequences, and a pattern emerges: the need for unpaid, job-protected leave for certain serious family and medical reasons.

Twenty-one states have now passed bills guaranteeing some form of minimum job security. These range from 24 weeks of combined parental and family-care leave within a two-year period in Connecticut, to two weeks for the care of a child, spouse, or parent in Wisconsin. Illinois is an ``almost'' state (``We almost did it,'' says Lana Hostetler, a legislative consultant). The legislature passed a family responsibility bill, but the governor vetoed it in September.

At the federal level, the Family and Medical Leave Act would provide 10 weeks of unpaid leave to enable a worker to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or a seriously ill family member. Supporters say the bill, which has been working its way through Congress since 1985, is slated to come up for a vote this winter.

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Powerful business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, oppose these bills. They argue that government should not dictate business policies. They also claim the cost of replacing workers on leave would be prohibitive.

Yet some companies now implementing such policies find that accommodating workers' family needs does not incur the financial burden they feared. As Marlene Johnson, lieutenant governor of Minnesota, told 50 state and national family policy leaders who met in Boston for a three-day legislative roundtable on family leave earlier this month, ``Not one business person has raised this with me in a negative way since the bill passed. Not one.''

Advocates of family policies counter that instead of trying to calculate the purported costs of offering unpaid leaves, employers should consider the price they pay by not giving them: The cost of losing experienced workers who have little choice but to quit. The cost of hiring and training new workers to replace them. The hidden cost of low morale as other employees wonder, ``What if that happened to me?''

The '90s promise to be a decade when we must come to terms with care-giving - a time when more working parents will be searching for good child care, and when more adult sons and daughters will be meeting the needs of a burgeoning older population. It will also be a time when business leaders will need to reexamine their opposition to family leave bills, recognizing that stable families contribute to stable workplaces.

Attitudes change. Laws change. By the end of the '90s, it will seem like a bad 19th-century dream - the idea that employers could roam the corridors of corporate America, firing employees at will because they need unpaid time off during a family crisis.

Even Scrooge, after all, had a change of heart toward his clerk, telling Bob Cratchit, ``I'll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family.''

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