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IS FAMILY CARE LEAVE JUST A YUPPIE WELFARE BENEFIT?

UNPAID EMPLOYEE leave for the birth of a child was recently called "yuppie welfare" by the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

But a newly published book by a former manager for American Telephone & Telegraph claims that worries over family care are an increasingly common cause of lagging productivity.

With most of the nation observing the birth of a very special child Tuesday, it seems an appropriate time to consider some of the sides of the issue of parental leave.

Mark Alesse, state director of the 32,000-member independent business organization, maintains that laws forcing businesses to give their workers unpaid leave to care for newborn children or elderly parents would be paid for by co-workers through lower wages and reduced benefits.

He says this is so because some of the proposed laws would require employers to continue medical insurance benefits and the workers might draw unemployment insurance. Then, he continued, there is the cost of training a new employee and the problem of what you do with the person once the employee on leave returns.

"Mandating benefits denies employees the right to negotiate the mix of wages, salaries and the types of benefits most appropriate to their needs," Alesse asserts. He calls proposed state and federal laws that would give workers the right to unpaid leave a "one-size-fits-all" attempt to fill a need that, he claims, should be left to individual bargaining.

"Small employers recognize the changing character of the work force and voluntarily provide family leave in varying forms to their employees," he says. But, he continues, "mandates usurp the right of the business owner to make decisions critical to the operation of business."

Alesse tags the benefit as "yuppie welfare" because he believes that mandated leave would help only those who can afford not to work after the birth of a child. "People in the low- and middle-income categories, or single parents, will not readily be able to afford an unpaid leave," he says. "In fact, it's possible that these employees would prefer other benefits, such as paid vacations or subsidized day care."

Of course, paid leave, which is given to workers in many industrialized European countries, would solve that objection, but that idea is abhorrent to those who oppose even unpaid leave.

In fact, Alesse charges that granting unpaid parental leave would be just a step toward the horror of forcing paid leave.

Alesse's argument that providing unpaid leave is costly to small business, turned around, also could be used in favor of legislation mandating it. It would seem, from the view of the federation, that firms that agree to provide unpaid leave to workers are at a competitive disadvantage to companies that deny it. A mandate that applied to all employers would provide a more level playing field.

But Alesse gives other reasons for opposing parental leave legislation. All the government-mandated expenses, he argues, are making it much harder for individuals to "march out on their own" by starting their own businesses. "That's how the economy grows," he said. "That's how thousands achieve the American dream."

John Fernandez, a former AT&T manager who is now a human resource consultant, argues that the stress incurred by employees who must leave children and aging parents at home while they work is costing companies billions of dollars annually, due to increased absences, stress-related illnesses and lost productivity.

In his book, "The Politics and Reality of Family Care in Corporate America," he contends that as the baby boom generation ages, the problem will increase.

Family care is not strictly a woman's issue, he says, underscoring the obvious. "It has become a corporate competitive issue because it affects the productivity of employees -- male and female -- throughout the organization. If corporations want to remain profitable, they will have to take an active role in creating workable family care solutions."

That view is supported by 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women. Its studies find that, contrary to the fears expressed by Alesse, small business employment in states with parental leave policies is growing 21 percent faster than in states that don't have such policies.

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