Considering a national paid leave policy

National Family Caregivers Month kicked off on Nov. 1, and reminds us of the invaluable work being done by caregivers across the United States every day—and of how little has changed in terms of how we support their contributions. That’s why, this week, we led an interdisciplinary group of more than 100 academic scholars on aging, work and family issues to send an open letter to Congress calling for a strong national paid family and medical leave policy.

As two professors focused on the intersections of work, adult health and development at Boston College and the University of Denver, respectively, we have looked carefully at the ample evidence demonstrating the need for workplaces that value and respect caregiving. We also know it firsthand. Like nearly all people at some point in their lives, we’re caregivers too. One of us is caring for a feisty, 99-year-old mother who still makes broccoli salad for church suppers, but who has fallen several times, once breaking four ribs. The other is caring for four-year-old twins who were born preterm and who often needed unpredictable medical care and hospital stays during their first years of life.

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We, like most caregivers, approach caregiving as a labor of love and part of what it means to be family. But unfortunately, it can also be expensive. Not only are there out-of-pocket costs — such as medical co-payments, helping with household expenses and travel — but it also often involves time away from a paying job. In the absence of paid leave, the lost income can add up quickly.

Roughly 40 million people in the U.S. provide care for a family member or friend each year. If we were to pay caregivers the going rate for this work, it would cost us more than $522 billion annually, according to a 2015 Rand Corporation Study. Instead, we expect that family members will provide this work for free — with little thought to the economic consequences to families, employers and taxpayers.

According to AARP, nearly 80 percent of caregivers report having out-of-pocket caregiving costs, which average almost $7,000, or 20 percent of their income. In addition, the Families and Work Institute found that nearly half (48 percent) of caregivers who take time away from work to help older family members — such as a mom or dad — report losing income when they do so. Of this group, more than half (52 percent) said they had to leave their jobs because their employers did not allow the flexibility needed to work and provide elder care. These decisions often affect a family’s ability to pay for groceries or other basic necessities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 15 percent of the U.S. workforce has access to paid family leave through employers, and less than 40 percent has access to employer-provided short-term disability insurance. As expected, those in lower-paying jobs are least likely to have these benefits. And while the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 provides job protection for workers taking unpaid time to address personal or family medical issues, less than 60 percent of the workforce is eligible for its protections, and many eligible workers who need FMLA leave cannot afford to take it.

In general, as the workforce has aged — and the need for caregiving has increased — our nation’s workplace policies have not adapted. It’s important that they do, because so many workers today need to continue working into and beyond the conventional retirement years.

One critical step is to enact the FAMILY Act (S. 337/H.R. 947), introduced this year by Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandDem: Ex-lawmaker tried to pin me to elevator door and kiss me In Washington and Hollywood, principle is sad matter of timing Mika Brzezinski: Bill Clinton needs to apologize or stop talking MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroOvernight Regulation: Senate tax bill to include ObamaCare mandate repeal | Sessions sidesteps questions on WH influence on AT&T merger | Dems seek more transparency on student borrower rule Dems call on DeVos to make rewrite of student protection rule public Considering a national paid leave policy MORE (D-Conn.). The bill would create a paid family and medical leave insurance program, paid for by employees and employers, essentially making FMLA a paid benefit. Several states have enacted similar legislation, and those with active paid leave programs find few abuses and significant positive impacts for both employers and workers.

At some point in every working person’s life, time away from a job will likely be needed to attend to a personal illness or that of a family member. A public insurance program such as that established by the FAMILY Act would ensure that every working person pays in, so that every working person can receive the benefit when the inevitable strikes. This common-sense approach would ease workers’ fears of needing to choose between a job and a family member.

For the sake of family caregivers, older workers, their employers and all Americans, it is time for a national paid leave policy that values the work of family caregivers and facilitates their ability to lead productive and meaningful lives, regardless of age or health status. Our nation cannot afford to wait.

Jacquelyn B. James, Ph.D., is co-director at the Center on Aging & Work and a research professor at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. Jennifer C. Greenfield, MSW, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.