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The right-to-leave debate: Does Illinois need a "family act"?

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Susan Hendrix didn't think her boss would be overjoyed when she took off a few days because of morning sickness. But she never expected the reaction she got.

A 34-year-old paralegal who is expecting her first child this summer, Hendrix (a pseudonym) explains: "I'd been working at this firm downtown for five months, and about a week after I told them I was pregnant, one of the partners told me that I was being phased out of my position. He said that the firm didn't think I had the adequate skills, although they had never complained about my performance before."

The firing--which would have left Hendrix without medical coverage if it hadn't been for her husband's policy--is one of several cases cited by backers of the Family Responsibility and Medical Leave Act. This bill mandates 18 weeks of unpaid leave every two years for employees who are seriously ill or must care for a sick relative or a newborn baby. Under the bill, an employee retains full health benefits while on leave and gets his or her job back when the leave expires. (The bill applies only to companies with more than 15 employees.)

"We need this act because the work force and family have changed dramatically, but work rules have not changed to accommodate them," says state senator Dawn Clark Netsch, the Lincoln Park politician who drafted the bill. "We don't live in an Ozzie-and-Harriet world; this is a world of two working parents. We should recognize that. No one should have to make the unconscionable choice between taking care of one's family and losing his or her job."

Not surprisingly, many business groups take a different point of view.

"Unfortunately, this seems to be another case where we are put in the position of being against apple pie and motherhood," says Pamela Mitroff, a spokesperson for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. "We're not against families or motherhood. But we are against government interfering in employee-employer relations. This is another case of government laying mandate after mandate and cost after cost on businesses. After a while, it will be too expensive for Illinois businesses to compete."

Today about 73 percent of women of childbearing age are working--more than double the percentage from three decades ago. A majority of U.S. families are headed by a single woman or two working parents. Even if a husband or wife wants to stay home and raise the children--or just stay home--many can't afford to. On top of that, many Americans are now of an age when the health of their parents begins to fail--which means sons and daughters are pressed to drop out of the job market to care for them.

"This bill doesn't just apply to pregnancy leaves," says Wendy Cohen, a legislative aide to Netsch. "It also allows you to take time off to care for a dependent relative. That means treating someone who has cancer, Alzheimer's, AIDS, a heart attack, or any surgery." The bill also allows 18 weeks' unpaid leave to people who become ill. Cohen adds, "It's inaccurate to think of this only as a women's bill. Statistics show that many victims of heart attacks are middle-aged men. This bill would protect their rights, too."

Still, what prompted Netsch to propose the legislation were the horror stories from pregnant women like Hendrix. In her case, she has been unable to find full-time work since being laid off.

"When prospective employers realize that I'm pregnant, they don't want to hire me," says Hendrix. "They don't want to have to train someone and then watch her leave a few months later to have a baby. It's very frustrating for me. I feel like business is out to screw pregnant women. They treat me as though I'm incapable of working, even though I have full mental capabilities and I want to work. The law in these matters should be changed to protect women."

Laws governing pregnancy leave are in flux; it was only in 1978 that Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires companies to include pregnancy in their disability-leave plans. The act left a loophole, however, since it does not require companies to have disability plans. About 60 percent of women work for businesses that do not have disability-insurance plans. Women's groups have been galvanized by the issue of pregnancy benefits in recent months, in part in reaction to an article by business consultant Felice Schwartz that appeared earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review.

"Schwartz wrote that companies should have two tracks of employment: one for women who will sacrifice family for career, and one for family-oriented women," says Shelley Gates, associate director of Women Employed, a not-for-profit civilrights and job-counseling group. "Schwartz suggested that family-oriented women be steered toward jobs that have less pressure and allow more leave. Schwartz didn't use the words 'mommy track'--that's what reporters labeled it--but she took a lot of heat. The fear is that her idea will keep women in lower-level jobs. In her defense, you have to say that Schwartz was grappling with a problem that society must confront. Employers must realize that the future work force will be very dependent on women employees."

Netsch's first effort on this front was a bill in 1987. This died in committee, as much the victim of its own deficiencies, especially a lack of comprehensiveness, as of a well-coordinated assault by business leaders. "I admit that original bill had problems," says Cohen. "It said that if your child or parent gets ill, you can take time off to care for them. We changed that so the new bill allows you to take a leave to care for your spouse as well; that was a big concern of senior citizens."

In the new bill Netsch also tightened the requirements for employees' leaves and limited their benefits. Under the current proposal, an employee who doesn't return to work after her leave must reimburse her employer for any bills paid by its health insurance during her absence; that wasn't required in Netsch's original proposal. To be eligible for leave, employees must have worked at least 20 hours a week for a year (which means, ironically, that Hendrix would not be eligible; she had been on the job for only five months). Backed by senate president Philip Rock, Netsch released her new bill at a press conference last month.

Reaction was mixed. Women's and senior-citizens' groups applauded her. But the Chicago Tribune denounced the bill in an editorial for "trying to legislate employee benefits, which the Illinois legislature should not be doing." Other business interests have pledged to work for its defeat.

"We oppose it on philosophical and practical grounds," says John Davis, state director of the Illinois chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents about 16,000 small companies in the state. "About 71 percent of businesses already have a parental leave. Some of these things are very informal; it's the kind of thing a boss can work out with an employee. Frankly, I've never heard of a boss firing someone for being pregnant. Those days don't exist anymore."

Davis also contends the bill could be easily abused.

"Let's say I own a gas station in Springfield and I employ some guy who has a girlfriend in Cairo," says Davis. "Well, one day he says: 'Guess what? My girlfriend's pregnant; I need 18 weeks off.' What am I supposed to do, go down to Cairo and examine the girlfriend?

"And another thing: the bill's backers say it won't cost a thing. That's not true. If you go on leave I have to replace you--someone's got to do your work. That means my unemployment-insurance tax goes up, because that tax is levied according to the number of people you lay off over the year. It's another example of when you mandate a benefit, another benefit is eliminated. Let's say a company has a dental program, but now the state says you have to have family leave. The employer's going to say: 'I only have so many dollars, so I'll eliminate the dental program.'

"We have to be careful about stepping down the slippery slope of mandated benefits. Look at western Europe. Businesses there have more mandated benefits than any other country, and they have the lowest rate of economic growth. On the other hand, look at Japan--they don't have these mandated benefits and their economy is booming. When Big Brother tells you what to do, you have problems."

Other business owners, however, argue that the fringe benefits they offer--like parental leave--attract good employees and encourage them to remain.

"The key to success in business is good workers," says Leland Wilkinson, president of Systat, Inc., an Evanston software-design company that employs 40. "If you treat your workers like cattle, they won't want to work for you. It's good business to offer parental leave. It only makes sense.

"I can get very curmudgeonly and conservative when it comes to certain regulations where you have 50 pages of forms to fill out. But we've allowed pregnancy leaves for a year, and it hasn't added overhead to our work. If someone has to take a leave, we can work around that problem. It's certainly better than having to go out, interview applicants, and then train a new employee."

Wilkinson also notes that, "From a purely cynical point of view, I guess I should oppose [Netsch's] bill, because that way my company's policies would seem more generous. But it seems this bill borders on a right. We're talking about basic survival at work."

Netsch and Cohen point out that most studies show that workers rarely take off their full 18 weeks. "Usually they can't afford to," says Cohen. "And a lot of companies can find ways to work around a leave without hiring new employees. They can always redistribute the work load."

At this point it's unclear which side has the upper hand in the state legislature. A similar federal bill, proposed two years ago by Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, had a great deal of momentum before it hit the floor of Congress and faced a fierce attack from business lobbyists. Within a few months legislators had placed so many restrictions on benefits that the bill was pretty useless. Whether that will happen to the Netsch bill depends on the positions taken by Governor James Thompson and House Speaker Michael Madigan--neither of whom has commented on the bill.

"We've had hearings on this bill in the past, and I always ask opponents: 'What do you do now with pregnant women? Do you fire them?'" says Netsch. "And they say, 'No, we try and work things out.' I'm only saying that everyone should be on a level playing field.

"I think we have a persuasive argument. Putting aside the ethics of the issue, if they argue the family act will cost too much money, we can identify the costs of not having a family act. If a woman loses her job, she may have to go on unemployment or welfare. There are many more costs than meet the eye."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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