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In Favor of Families

The Family and Medical Leave Act, which for four years now has been giving employees in the United States up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave a year to stay home with new babies or to care for ill family members, isn't perfect - but it is pretty good.

Here's what's good: It's a pro-family law, recognizing that employees have needs outside the workplace. It prevents workers from having to choose between short-term care and their careers. And, as the bipartisan Family Leave Commission told Congress last year, it hasn't been an administrative burden on companies, and it hasn't created significant additional costs.

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Here's what's problematic: It doesn't reach as many people as it should. More than 41 million private-sector workers aren't covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), in many cases because they work for companies with fewer than 50 employers (which are exempted from the law). Also, many people say they don't take advantage of the FMLA because they can't afford the lost wages. Others know little about the law's provisions.

The FMLA can and should be better, even if it still won't be perfect. Several members of Congress want to expand the law and have introduced bills doing just that. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, for example, has proposed legislation that would extend the FMLA to businesses with as few as 25 employees, meaning an additional 13 million workers would benefit. (Smaller firms and their employees would have to use common sense in implementing the law, carefully scheduling multiple absences, for example.)

President Clinton, meanwhile, has proposed what he calls "Family Leave II." Among other things, he envisions giving workers 24 hours of unpaid leave each year for family obligations such as parent-teacher conferences.

Do these suggestions add up to just another government mandate? We don't think so. As we've said before, the FMLA shouldn't be seen as a threat from government but as a fair way to treat employees. Now four years old, the law has accomplished much, but it still has more to do.

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