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By Dick Meister

Certainly none of the rights granted California workers is more important than their right to take leaves of up to 12 weeks to spend with new children or to care for sick family members. Yet millions of workers are unable to fully exercise that vital right. They can't afford to. The leaves are unpaid.

But state lawmakers now have the chance to free workers from having to make the painful choice between staying on the job to earn money essential to their family's well-being or taking time off to meet other critical family needs. A bill that would grant the workers paid leaves -- SB 1661 -- already has passed the State Senate.

"People are trying to run home at lunch hour to make sure their sick kid is OK, or trying to get to the hospital where their parents are before visiting hours are over ... They are being torn apart," notes the bill's author, Democratic Sen. Sheila Kuehl of Los Angeles.

Her measure would be financed by annual Disability Insurance payments of $42 per worker split equally by workers and employers. It would grant workers on leave 55 percent of their regular pay up to $490 a week beginning in 2004, the maximum increasing yearly in line with inflation.

Although the bill doesn't go nearly far enough, in part because the paid leaves would be granted only to those whose employers have 50 or more workers, it would be an important start.

Employer lobbyists oppose Kuehl's bill, as they oppose just about anything that could possibly add to employer costs. Studies show, however, that the measure actually would very likely lower the costs by promoting employee satisfaction and economic security and thus increased commitment and productivity. It undoubtedly also would reduce turnover and make it easier for employers to attract and keep well-trained workers.

What's more, the bill would likely lower taxpayer costs, since at least 10 percent of workers who take unpaid leaves end up drawing public welfare payments.

There are, in any case, reasons for such measures well beyond the dollar concerns of employers and taxpayers.

It's vital that children get the constant and loving care of parents throughout their formative stages of development. Too many do not get that care because their mothers and fathers can't afford to take the time off work to provide it.

It's often essential, too, that seriously ill spouses or domestic partners of workers get their close attention and care. With the rise in life expectancy, steadily increasing numbers of workers also have aging parents who need their care.

California's current law granting only unpaid leaves is patterned after the nine-year-old federal Family and Medical Leave Act that was enacted only after more than a decade of campaigning by organized labor, women's groups and others in the face of strong opposition from business organizations and their Republican allies.

It's sadly not surprising that it took so long to come up with so little. For as former President Bill Clinton said, despite "all of this nation's pro-family rhetoric, the hard truth is that other countries with advanced economies do a lot more to support working parents."

That's putting it mildly. Virtually all other industrialized nations grant paid leaves to workers to care for children and meet other family needs. The leaves, averaging 16 weeks, are financed by government or employers or by both. Nearly half of them pay workers their full salaries.

California, as wealthy as most of those nations, obviously can afford to also provide paid leaves, modest though they may be in comparison, and in doing so set an example for the Federal Government and the two dozen other states that are looking into meeting what long has been one of the most urgent needs of America's working people.

Copyright c 2002, Dick Meister, a freelance columnist based in San Francisco, who has covered labor and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.

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