'We Have To Sacrifice'

When Gina Garro and Brian Duplisea adopted 4-month-old Andres from Colombia last month, they were determined to take time off from work to care for him. Six years ago, after their daughter, Melina, was born, the family scraped by on Duplisea's $36,000 salary as a construction worker so Garro, a special-education teacher, could stay home. Now, since Garro's job furnishes the family health insurance, she'll head back to work this fall while Duplisea juggles diapers and baby bottles. His boss agreed to the time off--but he will have to forgo his $18-an-hour pay. It won't be easy. Though Garro's $40,000 salary will cover their mortgage, the couple will have to freeze their retirement accounts, scale back on Melina's after-school activities--and pray that nothing goes wrong with the car. "It takes away from your cushion and your security," says Garro. "Things will be tight."

The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act was supposed to help families like Garro's, offering a safety net to employees who want to take time off to nurture newborns, tend to their own major illnesses or care for sick relatives. But while the law guarantees that workers won't lose their jobs, it doesn't cover their paychecks. One survey last year showed that while 24 million Americans had taken leaves since 1999, 2.7 million more wanted to, but couldn't afford it. That may change soon. In response to increasing demands from voters, at least 25 states are now exploring new ways to offer paid leave. One possibility: tapping state disability funds. A handful of states--New York, New Jersey, California, Rhode Island and Hawaii--already dip into disability money to offer partial pay for wom-en on maternity leave. But that doesn't help dads or people caring for elderly parents. New Jersey and New York may soon expand disability programs to cover leave for fathers and other caretakers. Thirteen states, including Arizona, Illinois and Florida, have proposed using unemployment funds to pay for leave.

Massachusetts has been especially creative. When the state's acting governor, Jane Swift, gave birth to twin daughters in May, she drew attention to the issue with her own "working maternity leave": she telecommuted part-time but earned her usual full-time salary. Even before Swift returned to work last week, the state Senate unanimously passed a pilot plan that would use surplus funds from a health-insurance program for the unemployed to give new parents 12 weeks off at half pay. Another plan, proposed in the House, would require employers to kick in $20 per worker to set up a "New Families Trust Fund." Businesses would get tax credits in return. This week Swift is expected to announce her own paid-leave plan for lower-income mothers and fathers. Polls show widespread public support--another reason Swift and other politicians across the country have embraced the issue.

Still, not everyone's wild about the idea. People without children question why new parents--the first group to get paid leave under many of the proposed plans--should get more government perks than they do. Business groups are resistant to proposals that would raid unemployment funds; several have already filed suit to block them. As the economy slows, many companies say they can't afford to contribute to proposed new benefit funds either. Business lobbyists say too many employees already abuse existing federal family-leave laws by taking time off for dubious reasons or in tiny time increments. The proposed laws, they say, would only make matters worse.

For Garro and Duplisea, though, the new laws could make all the difference. As Melina fixes a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, Duplisea hugs a snoozing Andres against his T shirt. "We're trying to do the right thing by two kids, and we have to sacrifice," Duplisea says. In Massachusetts and plenty of other states, help may be on the way.

'We Have To Sacrifice' | News