Saturday, May 31, 2003

Family Leave Act

Back to work with a smile


Every so often, government gets a good idea and ignores enough corporate lobbyists to act on it. Case in point: the Family Medical Leave Act, which turns 10 this year.

I couldn't have survived without it.

Our son was born March 1, and thanks in part to the federal law, we've had the last three months to get acquainted.

We needed every minute. Those first weeks were terrifying. I fell into bed at night with fear stuck in my throat.

Our baby wasn't eating enough, the doctor said. He might have a metabolic or neurological disorder, she said. He needed tests and more tests.

Feeding frenzy

My husband and I recorded every drop the little guy swallowed. We cheered when he managed to drink 2 ounces in an hour - an amount that should have taken 15 minutes.

Hoping to trick him into nursing, I taped a tiny tube to my chest, balanced a bottle across my shoulder and tried squeezing milk into his mouth as if it were coming from me.

It ran down my back instead. Baby, not the least bit fooled, fell asleep.

Stress mounted. When not trying to feed the kid, I nursed other obsessions. (We must find the lids to all our orphaned Tupperware, right now! I must write 15 thank-you notes between 3 and 4 a.m.!)

Finally, the doctors diagnosed our son's problem: laryngo malacia, a breathing condition that can interfere with eating.

Slowly, he began to improve. By the last few weeks, my leave had become a blissful mix of nursing, bonding and still more Tupperware sorting.

A good start

That third month came courtesy of the Family Medical Leave Act. Many large employers, mine included, grant up to eight weeks paid leave after a baby, but it's the FMLA that makes the extra month possible - and for more than just pregnancy.

The act guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees of companies with at least 50 workers. Besides babies, that time can be taken to care for yourself or a seriously ill child, spouse or parent.

This makes sense. But in 1993, businesses fought the law, predicting declines in productivity.

Didn't happen, says the U.S. Department of Labor.

In a 2000 survey of 1,839 employers, 83 percent reported a positive or unnoticeable effect on productivity, while 88 percent said employee morale was the same or better than before.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that all employers who meet the criteria - including state governments - must follow the law.

To be sure, we have a ways to go. U.S. childbirth leave is still the most miserly of 10 comparable nations in Europe and North America. (Canadians, for instance, get more than six months off at half-pay.)

At the least, a certain amount of paid leave should be guaranteed, so lower-income families can afford the same care taking as others.

But the FMLA was a good start. If you have your own family leave story, I'd love to hear it. Call me or send an e-mail, please.

It's good to be back.

E-mail or call (859) 578-5584.

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