All in the Family: Does the U.S. Need to Expand Medical Leave?

It's a decision faced by nearly every working parent: how long can they afford to be away from work after the birth of a child?

In worldwide survey, ABC News' 20/20 program found that of 168 countries in the world, only four offer no national maternity-leave program: Lesotho, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and the United States.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., would like to change that.

Dodd, a veteran Democrat who is running for president on a "fresh face-plus-experience" platform, announced on Thursday that he will sponsor controversial legislation that would broaden the Family and Medical Leave Act to include six weeks of paid medical leave.

"Everyday, parents are forced to choose between the job and income they need and the family they love," the Senator proclaimed at a Capitol Hill press conference announcing his proposal.

The new legislation, which Dodd said he hopes to introduce in the Senate in the next few weeks, would allow U.S. workers to take at least six weeks off and still be paid -- to have a baby, take care of a newly adopted child, recover from an illness, or take care of a sick child or family member.

Noting that his own five-year-old daughter, Grace, was sick this morning, Dodd said he understands the difficult decision parents must make between work and family.

"They ought never to be put in that position, in my point-of-view," he said. "This is the 21st century and we ought to be able to do better."

However, Sen. Dodd said he anticipated the Bush administration will oppose expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act.

"We're spending $8 billion a month in Iraq," Dodd claimed. "Just give me one month (of that money) and we'll be in better shape."

Positive Reception from Women and Family Advocates

The new legislation is being applauded by women and family advocates who say the current laws leave 40 percent of private sector workers out in the cold.

"A lot of workers who need it the most can't afford to take it because it's unpaid leave and they can't afford to go without a paycheck," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

"It's been more than a decade since we've passed a law that would really give the families the support they need in the struggles they face day to day," she said.

The Connecticut Democrat authored the original Family and Medical Leave Act fourteen years ago, which the National Partnership for Women & Families says has allowed 50 million workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they are ill or need to care for a family member or new child.

"I've probably dedicated a quarter of a century of service to these child and family issues," said Sen. Dodd. "It's an issue that I've cared about for a long time."

Dodd first introduced parental and medical leave in 1986, but the bill was shelved when Pres. Ronald Reagan threatened to veto it. The bill was introduced a second time and passed in 1990, but Pres. George H.W. Bush vetoed it in June 1990.

President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law in February 1993 -- the first piece of legislation he signed as president.

"Family and medical leave is a matter of pure common sense and a matter of common decency," said President Clinton at the bill signing. "Never again will parents have to fear losing their jobs because of their families," he added.

Senator Anticipates Political Resistance

Senator Dodd said he anticipates that businesses and the U.S. Labor Department will resist the idea of expanding current family and medical leave legislation.

He said businesses have had the same worries for 20 years, namely that leave will hurt their bottom line.

But, Dodd countered, "And in every study on areas of productivity, profitability and growth, 90 percent of the employers have reported either no negative impact or actually a positive benefit in terms of employee loyalty, in terms of productivity of those employees."

However, Karen Czarnecki, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, told ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas in 20/20 feature last November that requiring companies to offer more family and medical leave benefits is bad for business.

"I think mandating such benefits across employers of all kinds will hurt our economy," said Czarnecki. "We'd end up losing jobs. I really think the economic consequences would be dire."

Study: The U.S. Lags Behind In Family-Oriented Workplace Policies

Sen. Dodd's announcement coincided with the release of a new study by Harvard University and McGill University in Canada which finds that the United States is far behind other countries when it comes to workplace policies like maternity leave and paid sick days.

Many countries around the world offer fathers more ability to stay at home with a new baby than mothers get in the U.S. Canada offers parents one-year of maternity and paternity leave that new mothers and fathers can share any way they see fit.

Japan, an economic powerhouse, has found that it's good for business to give parents benefits, too.

However, family advocates say that the tide is turning in the United States, with more and more states such as New Jersey and Washington state considering family leave proposals.

The leading state advocate is California, the only state where employees can take time off for medical emergencies and get a paycheck. Workers there can collect a little more than half a normal week's pay -- up to $840 -- in those circumstances.

The California program is entirely employee-funded, averaging out to roughly $1.56 per employee per month. The Senator's plan would share the costs between the federal government, the employer, and employee.

Standing Out in a Crowd

As the 2008 presidential election campaign revs up, the candidates vying for the top job are beginning to mark out their positions on keys issues.

When asked if he thought his new legislation would help to distinguish him from the other Democratic candidates, including Senator Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Senator Barack Obama, D-Ill., Dodd exclaimed, "I certainly hope so!"

Dodd acknowledged that Senator Joe Biden, D-Dela., also a declared presidential contender, and Clinton, especially during her time as First Lady, have long been champions of children and families.

Will Women in Power Deliver Family-Friendly Policy?

With a women running for president and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi second in line for the presidency after only Vice President Dick Cheney, some family advocates hope for more family-friendly policies.

"Both of those women are very in touch with the realities that women face," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Ness said she hopes that more and more states are putting forth proposals that would give parents more flexibility in taking time off with a newborn or newly adopted child.

"A lot of working moms say that they are just one sick child away from losing their jobs," said Ness. "So more absolutely needs to be done to help families balance work and family."

Can Women 'Have It All'?

When ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas departed from her anchor desk job on "World News," last summer, she reignited the ongoing debate about work and home.

Vargas said she loved her job as anchor of "World News" but the prospect of doing it well, and still finding time to be a good mother to her 3-year-old Zachary and her new baby, Samuel, felt impossible, she said.

Women's organizations protested to ABC, and columnists debated the message Vargas' job change would send.

Vargas said giving up the anchor chair at the evening news, and returning exclusively to anchor "20/20" was the right decision for her.