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Few Workers Using Family Leave Law : Only 1% of personnel at most California firms are taking the 12 weeks. Business wonders what the fuss was about.


Linda Kopps, personnel manager at Fireplace Manufacturers Inc. in Santa Ana, remembers worrying last August when the national family leave law took effect. "I thought a slew of workers would use it," she says. "It seemed so perfect for abuse."

But in the past 12 months, Kopps says, not a single one of her company's 202 workers has asked for the federal leave. What does Kopps think about the law now? "It's not that big of a deal," she concludes.

While not universal, Kopps' opinion reflects a broad sentiment among employers in the state and nation. The Family and Medical Leave Act--which allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for childbirth, adoption or serious illness of an employee or family member--hasn't been as burdensome as employers feared.

For California employers, the worst has been some confusion between the federal law and a similar state-leave rule, which has been in place since 1992. But last October, California's law was changed to closely conform with the federal act.

"What it looks like is a lot of business leaders made a big stink about nothing," says Ron Seide, marketing manager at Kingston Technology Corp. in Fountain Valley, adding that he can not recall anyone at his 300-employee firm who has used the federal leave law.

Patricia Callahan, executive vice president of personnel at San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank, isn't sure how many of the company's 19,000 workers have taken the federal leave. Tracking workers on family leave hasn't been easy, she says, and the law has led Wells Fargo to hire more contract workers and to revise its leave policy. Still, Callahan said, "I don't know if we have denied it. The company has learned to survive it quite well."

For some workers, the federal leave has been a godsend. Dawn Gaskill, a sales coordinator at the Costa Mesa Marriott Suites, took almost four months off work for the birth of her second child by combining the state's pregnancy disability leave time and the amount of time granted under the federal law.

"It was a very big relief to know I would have a job when I got back," said the 29-year-old Anaheim resident. By contrast, when Gaskill had her first child four years ago, she says she quit her data-entry job because she could not get such an extended leave.

Taking leave to bond with a newborn, as Gaskill did, probably accounts for most of the people taking the federal leave. But experts say increasingly, workers are using the year-old law to care for an elderly parent.

Barbara Aguil, a lab technician at North American Chemical Co. in Trona, northeast of Bakersfield, had only two vacation days and no sick leave left for this year when her 71-year-old father became critically ill. Aguil says she considered calling in sick, but then her supervisor reminded her of the federal leave. "I had read about (the law) last year, but you don't think you're going to need it."

She did, and the federal law allowed her to care for her father during his last two weeks of life. "It meant the world to me," Aguil said. "I talked to him, I held his hand, I knew he knew I was there."

On average, it appears that only 1% or fewer of employees at most California companies are using the family leave, according to a private survey and other reports.

Experts believe that many more people would ask for the federal leave if companies got the word out about the year-old law. "The bottom line is employers haven't actively been communicating the law," says Janice Stanger, an associate at the consulting firm of William M. Mercer Inc., whose survey in January found that fewer than 50% of the California employers questioned had provided information about the federal leave law to their workers.

In one such dispute in Southern California, Paul Worthman, research director at the Service Employees International Union Local 399 in Los Angeles, accuses Kaiser Permanente of failing to post notices about the leave law in various Kaiser centers, as the law requires. "Kaiser never notified employees of the act's existence," said Worthman, whose union represents 12,000 workers at eight Kaiser centers. Kathy Logan, a nurse at a Kaiser Permanente clinic in Anaheim, adds that she was written up by her supervisor for taking a leave that Logan believes qualifies under the federal law. "They need to learn about this," she says.

Kaiser spokeswoman Kathleen Barco, while declining to comment on Logan's case, says that the health maintenance organization has posted notices and provided information about the federal law through employee newsletters. "I think we've met the letter of the law," Barco says, adding: "In fact, I think we've gone beyond it."

The Service Employee union's accusation against Kaiser, which has yet to be resolved, is one of 965 complaints lodged nationwide through June 30 with the Labor Department. About 11% of those were filed on the West Coast. Nationwide, labor officials say that six in 10 of the complaints against employers were valid.

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