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Finally, Families Get a Corporate Perk

TODAY marks a long-awaited victory for anyone who has ever had trouble combining a paycheck with parenthood. After eight years of public debate, countless revisions, and two presidential vetoes, the Family and Medical Leave Act takes effect. It gives employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new baby or a seriously ill family member.

But hold the celebrations, please - or at least don't expect the boss to join in. Employees may regard this as a red-letter day, but some employers see it as a red-ink regulation. Small-business owners in particular worry about the cost of hiring temporary replacements and maintaining health coverage for absent workers. They also resent the long arm of the federal government meddling in corporate policies, especially when managers must wade through 91 pages of regulations published by the United States D epartment of Labor.

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Yet that long arm doesn't reach everywhere. The law exempts businesses with fewer than 50 employees. It doesn't cover the highest-paid 10 percent of a company's workers. It excludes anyone who hasn't worked for a company for at least 12 months and at least 1,250 hours a year - 25 hours a week. It also requires workers to give 30 days notice, if possible, when they need to take a leave.

Even so, opponents argue that the law will slow hiring in the very sector where almost all job growth has occurred in recent years. Supporters don't deny that charge. The only question is: How much will it slow employment and for how long?

Among 300 small businesses surveyed by Kessler Exchange, 28 percent said they might stop hiring before they reach 50 employees to avoid complying. Nearly 20 percent said they were considering cutting their staff to fewer than 50 for the same reason. Others say they plan to hire only part-time or temporary workers, who receive no benefits.

But for people with families, the law offers welcome protection. It makes family leave a right, not simply a benefit to be given or refused according to the whim of individual bosses. This new legal status might protect other wage earners from the kind of unpleasant situation a working mother in Springfield, Mass., faced recently.

When her son, now five months old, was born, the woman took an eight-week unpaid leave. Several months after she returned, she accepted a job with another firm. Her supervisor was furious.

"After all we did to accommodate your maternity leave," the manager sputtered, as if time off without pay represents a corporate "favor" that obligates an employee to stay forever. The departing worker could only respond, "But what about all the times I've accommodated the company, including staying for meetings until 10 p.m.?"

Most of the media focus on the law has centered around the protection it offers new parents. To the 2 million working women who give birth each year it says: You can't lose your job because you have a baby. From now on, a bundle of joy won't arrive with a pink slip attached.

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Equally important are its provisions for caring for other family members. Of the 2.5 million workers expected to take family leave annually, the General Accounting Office estimates that 1 million will use it to care for seriously ill parents or spouses.

Obviously a change of law doesn't guarantee a change of heart on the part of managers. You can legislate policies and benefits, but you can't legislate attitudes.

Despite all the media hype about "family-friendly" workplaces, too many companies remain "family-hostile." Love and marriage may go together like a horse and carriage, but families and careers still go together like, well, oil and water.

Until now. If companies approach the law with an open mind, they might discover that it's cheaper to hold a job for an experienced worker than to hire and train a new one. Even employers who fear a revolving door of workers moving in and out on unpaid leaves might be reassured by a sobering economic reality: Most people can't afford to miss 12 paychecks.

Employers have survived other mandates from Washington: child-labor laws, minimum-wage laws, safety and health regulations. They will survive the family leave act as well. Who knows? They might even thrive.

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