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Why Family Leave Deserves Republican Backing

WE in Congress revel in partisan slugfests. One of our favorite scraps is the epic political struggle pitting business versus labor. Name a domestic issue, and some Capitol Hill pundit will put a business-labor spin on it.Well, here we go again. Congress is considering the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the scribes are talking about another clash between the "big labor" Congress and the "pro-business" White House. In describing this particular "battle" in such black and white terms, however, these commentators gloss over the considerable common ground between Republicans and Democrats on this issue. FMLA would provide workers with 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth of a child or to care for a sick family member. This is more than a labor-management dispute. The debate about family leave legislation has nothing to do with wage hikes or benefits or unfair labor practices. Our legislation is an attempt to help working parents care for their family without fear of losing their jobs. This is a cause that demands the attention of Republicans and Democrats alike. When the family leave bill was working its way through Congress last year, many Republicans expressed reservations about its effect on corporate America. In order to address those concerns, an attempt was made to make the bill less onerous on America's small businesses. A bipartisan compromise addressed many of these concerns and granted an exemption for businesses with less than 50 employees (thereby exempting nearly 95 percent of all US firms). Several provisions of the bill were altered to make the legislation more palatable to business - the time of leave was shortened from 44 weeks to 12; leave could be used only to care for a spouse, child, or parent; and leave required certification from a doctor, rather than simply a health care provider. Last year, the FMLA fell victim to a presidential veto, and the veto was sustained by the vast majority of House Republicans. As we debate this issue again, Republicans should realize that this bill is not simply about workers and management. It is a bill to strengthen the family and accommodate a changing workplace. There are solid reasons for Republicans to support this legislation: 1. This legislation allows families to care for themselves, reinforcing the best Republican traditions of family self-sufficiency. Parents, spouses, and children are not asking for special favors from the government. They want their sick family member at home, not in a hospital. All they ask for is minimal job protection. 2. In some instances, family leave policies could save a family thousands of dollars in health care costs. For example, in the case of terminally ill patients, adult children covered under a family leave plan could care for a parent at home, with the help of a home hospice nurse. These nurses typically cost less than half the amount per day of an extended hospital stay. Home hospice care can only be arranged, however, if there is an adult in the home full-time. 3. Republicans have been justifiably proud of efforts to foster economic growth and create jobs. GOP pro-growth policies created more than 20 million new jobs from 1982 to 1989. Women have heard our message, and they are now in the work force in record numbers. Women make up 45 percent of our current work force. America needs these women in the work force, but sometimes their families need them at home. What are we to say if their children get sick? Are we to tell them that they must quit their jobs? 4. The majority of Republicans, myself included, support the rights of unborn children. Legislators who take this stand must remember, however, that our position carries certain responsibilities. We cannot ask, indeed require, that a women carry a child to term unless we are prepared to help her to some degree. At the very least, we should give her the peace of mind of knowing that her job is secure for three months. 5. This is the kind of fairness that Republicans should enthusiastically embrace. The GOP has been unfairly labeled as the "party of the rich." Family leave legislation will help working people without new spending programs or federal bureaucracies. Many would claim that this is a benefit that should be negotiated between the employer and the employee. While it is true that some forward-looking companies offer generous leave plans, only 37 percent of all employers offered even maternity leave in 1989. Lower-income workers have little leverage in negotiating with employers; in most cases they have little seniority and can be easily replaced. This is the right legislation for Republicans - it is good for the American family and good for the American economy. The people who benefit from family and medical leave are hard-working and dedicated both to their jobs and to taking care of their families.

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