Congress again appears on the verge of making a decision for everyone--that is everyone but Congress itself.The issue is whether the federal government should mandate a minimum leave policy that would be binding on all private sector companies and federal agencies. Congress has conveniently, however, decided that the requirements would not apply to congressional staff members.

A bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives would allow an employee 15 weeks of unpaid leave for sickness and 10 weeks of leave for purposes of "bonding" with a newborn or adopted child or to care for an ill child or parent. The definition of sickness is unclear but ranges from major illness or pregnancy to psychological care or allergy treatment. Although this bill specifies unpaid leave, business leaders fear it could set the groundwork for requiring paid leaves.

Should Congress design employee benefits in response to political pressures?

No!

The beauty of the United State's free market system lies in its ability to adapt to the needs, demands and desires of its customers. Companies that grow and succeed are those that best adapt to changes in the marketplace.

Similarly, those companies responding positively to employee desires are those most successful in promoting the strong work ethic and efficiency needed to keep the company financially healthy.

Private sector employers have been moving to adapt to the needs and demands of their employees without federal mandates. Since 1973, according to U.S. Chamber of Commerce statistics, voluntary expenditures for employee benefits have risen from $190 billion to $742 billion in 1986. Federally mandated benefits accounted for only 8.9 percent of employee benefit packages.

The trend in private business has been to offer "cafeteria-style" benefit packages, offerings that give employees a role in selecting options that meet individual needs. Employees stand to lose the number of options available should federal mandates cut into the benefit pie. As the Chamber of Commerce points out, "The pie doesn't get bigger, it just gets redivided."

Many companies have taken long strides in the right direction, offering healthy lifestyle programs and other benefits designed to produce healthier, and, hopefully, more productive employees. These programs will suffer if the federal government steps in and begins legislating mandatory benefits.

Unquestionably, there are areas where the federal government does have legitimate concern and where it should be involved, such as requiring safe working conditions.

Deciding employee benefits is one area best left to the private sector where the realities of economic conditions can be blended with the desires of employees to provide a package that is acceptable to both employer and employee.