Dec 1 1992

Family Leave Debate Leaves Families Out

News reports in September on the Senate’s vote to override George Bush’s veto of the Family Leave Bill focused primarily on one question: Did this help or hurt the president? “Congress Bruises Bush,” reported the Minneapolis Star Tribune (9/25/92), concluding that the legislative attempt to mandate unpaid maternity and family emergency leave was a setback for the president. On the other hand, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (9/25/92) suggested that while the veto might touch off accusations that Bush has “betrayed his family values,” the President could use a House failure to override “to show he can still flex his muscle.” (The House did eventually uphold Bush’s veto.)

Relegated to the sidelines were the working people most affected by the bill. Working women, who generally bear greater responsibility for childrearing and family care and consequently have the greatest need for such a bill, were cited by three major news dailies (New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today) exactly once in 1992 (USA Today, 9/28/92).

It’s not surprising that the debate over the 1992 Family Leave Bill was treated as a political football in most news accounts, given that the vast majority of media commentators on the topic were politicians. A study conducted by FAIR of reporting on the issue in 1992 revealed that 91 percent of commentators on family leave in the Times, Post and USA Today were government officials–mostly members of Congress and Bush administration officials.


The Costs to Business

But it isn’t as though the Beltway politicians who weighed in on the Family Leave Bill ignored its real-world consequences. They frequently stressed that the law would have a major impact–on business. Opponents of family leave argued that companies would suffer, while the supporters of the bill most commonly cited in the media argued that family leave might help businesses. The effect on workers was generally ignored.

News accounts generally held to the same narrow parameters of debate, as epitomized by a report in the Chicago Tribune (9/25/92) that overlooked working men and women entirely:

Supporters of the legislation…argue that the unpaid leave would be less costly to businesses than training replacement workers for those who are forced to leave to tend to a family emergency. But opponents say it would cost jobs in the aggregate and place an undue burden on business.

Within these confines, there was little room to address an equally important issue: Does the 1992 Family Leave Bill go far enough? The version passed by Congress covered only businesses with 50 or more employees and excluded those who work fewer than 25 hours a week, as well as those in the top 10 percent of the pay scale. Every other industrialized country not only mandates family leave, but also offers some financial support. In Germany, for instance, new mothers can take up to 19 weeks at full pay; in Canada, it’s 15 weeks at 60 percent pay.

One of the few pointed references to the fact that the 1992 Family Leave Bill makes no financial provisions for workers who need to take leave came from Butler Derrick (D-S.C.), cited in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (9/25/92). With no apparent irony, Derrick explained why he could support the bill without fear of hurting business: “People in my district are so happy to have a job, they can’t afford to take time off. They’ll use unpaid leave sparingly.”