Not long after taking office, my husband came home from a jog early one morning to find Kenneth Weaver, his wife, Rosie, and their three children waiting to introduce themselves. One daughter, Melissa, was in a wheelchair. Eleven years old and battling a rare form of cancer, she had come to Washington through the Make-a-Wish foundation.
As the President was getting ready to leave, Kenneth grabbed him by the arm. He wanted my husband to know that the first bill he had signed as President - the Family and Medical Leave Act - had made a huge difference to the Weaver family."Mr. President, let me tell you something," Kenneth said. "My little girl here is desperately ill. She's probably not going to make it." But because of the family leave law, he was able to take time off from work to be with Melissa without fear of losing his job. It was, he told the President, "the most important time I ever spent in my life."
Six days later, Melissa died.
The Family and Medical Leave Act requires companies with 50 or more workers to grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-guaranteed leave to employees who need the time to care for children, spouses or parents with serious health conditions. It also grants time off for workers who are ill themselves and for parents who have just given birth to a new baby or adopted a child. In short, the law helps American workers avoid making an impossible choice between livelihood and parenthood.
When family leave became law in August 1993, its opponents worried that it would hurt businesses and be abused by workers. But a recently released study conducted by a bipartisan commission has shown that those fears were unfounded.
As many as 3 million workers used the Family and Medical Leave Act during the 18 months covered in the study. Most took about 10 days off - far short of the 12-week maximum. Eighty-four percent of the leave-takers returned to their same employers. And some 90 percent of businesses reported that complying with the law required little or no extra cost.
In some cases, companies found that the policy actually helped them save money by reducing turnover and eliminating the expense of training new workers.
"If the ethical obligation we all have as employers isn't reason enough to support these types of leaves, the financial impact certainly is," Terri Wolfe, human resources director at Patagonia, a large clothing manufacturer, told the bipartisan commission. "The choice to implement family and medical leave policies is a matter of priorities."
Taking care of and spending time with a loved one who is seriously ill is an emotionally wrenching and physically draining process. I know from my own experience.
When my father fell ill just after we moved into the White House, I flew back to Little Rock and spent more than two weeks at his bedside. My father, mother, brothers and I spent hours reminiscing about the old days in our home on Wisner Street in Park Ridge, Ill.
We laughed about our vacations to Pennsylvania and my brothers' childhood hijinks. We talked of Chelsea and our hopes for her. Although we didn't - and couldn't - say it in so many words, those weeks helped us strengthen our bonds of affection, respect and love. I'll always be grateful that I could be with my father before he died.
I was lucky because I didn't have to make a choice between family and work. I was no longer working as a lawyer, and my husband was President. I was able to give my family all the time and attention they needed.
The same should be true for all Americans.
This week, at Vice President and Mrs. Gore's annual family conference in Nashville - which this year focused on balancing the pressures of family and work responsibilities - the President announced several new initiatives to make America's workplaces even more "family friendly." He hopes to expand family leave to allow for 24 hours of unpaid time off each year so that parents can attend parent-teacher conferences and take children or elderly relatives to the doctor. And he wants to change labor laws to give workers the option of taking their overtime pay in time off from work.
We should all consider the family leave law a positive first step in our effort to strengthen families in America. We need to find other ways of giving American workers more flexibility to care for their children and their parents without hurting their employers' bottom lines.
The President never forgot his meeting with Kenneth Weaver and his daughter Melissa. They are a reminder of the difference one law can make in the lives of our children and families.