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Reich Hails Family Leave Law

August 4, 1995 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A 1993 law allowing millions of workers 12 weeks of family or medical leave has been good for both business and workers, Labor Secretary Robert Reich and several company executives said Friday.

Not everybody agreed. Bell Atlantic Corp., for example, said it was losing millions of dollars as workers take 65 percent more sick leave than they did before the law went into effect.

The Family and Medical Leave Act _ the first bill President Clinton signed into law _ requires many employers to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical or family reasons such as serious illness or a birth. The law covers 40 percent of the work force, or some 60 million employees, and businesses with at least 50 workers.

Several companies, including Aetna Life and Casualty Co. and computer software maker Lotus Development Corp., on Friday told a federal commission studying the law’s effects that they have seen less employee turnover and saved on recruitment.

``We recognized early that the Family and Medical Leave Act was good for employees and good for business,″ said Ronald E. Compton, chief executive officer of Aetna.

Compton said that before the law one-quarter of Aetna’s female employees who had babies didn’t return to work, but now only one-eighth stay off the job after taking three months of unpaid leave.

Reich told the panel that despite fears among corporate America, the act didn’t result in legal battles or many quibbles. His office has handled only 3,200 complaints _ 90 percent were resolved with a telephone call _ and only one is still pending, he said.

``The act is working, for employers and employees,″ Reich said.

``The impact on business has been virtually zero,″ he added. ``Unlike some laws, the Family and Medical Leave Act has been a disaster for lawyers, except for lawyers who want to take time off.″

But Bell Atlantic said it has seen a drastic rise in employees skipping work, using the protection of the act to take extended _ and paid _ sick leave offered by the company, said company attorney Andy Mekelburg.

``We embrace the goals of the act, but the definition is so broad that it covers a lot of conditions,″ said Mekelburg, who contends the law makes it difficult to challenge workers’ sick leave claims.

Bell Atlantic serves Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia with more than 70,000 workers. The company estimated the law costs $3.5 million to administer and $475 per employee for sick leave a year _ a total of some $36.7 million.

The Labor Department did not have statistics on how many Americans have used family or medical leave, but the commission heard testimony from more than half a dozen people who took advantage of time off.

Diane Atwood of North Little Rock, Ark., said she was able to keep her employee medical benefits while battling Hodgkins disease in 1993 and 1994, and retain her job after she went into remission.

``All of my energies needed to be focused on this war (against cancer,) and nothing else,″ Atwood said. ``The act allowed me to do that.″