Paid Family Leave Policies are Not Just for New Parents

As a family caregiver for my mother who died last year at the age of 96, I benefited greatly from the peace of mind and financial security of having paid family leave benefits from my employer, AARP. The benefit was there when I needed it most: to be present for significant caregiving issues, during a hospitalization, and, finally, in the last days of my mother’s life.

Most workers in similar situations are not so fortunate.  In 2017, only 13 percent of private sector workers had access to paid family leave through their employer.

Without a paycheck to cover basic costs of living while caring for an ill family member, low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable. They tend to have the least access to paid time off for family caregiving needs and cannot afford to take unpaid family leave.

Such dynamics are only the start.  Following are three trends that highlight paid family leave as an increasingly pressing national issue.

Demographic and cultural shifts bring increased attention to family caregiving concerns in the workplace. The current national conversation over paid family leave, and most private-sector paid family leave benefits already in place, often centers on maternity and paternity leave. Yet with the aging of both the U.S. population and the labor force, that approach is missing the mark, as evidenced by data from usage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Nearly three out of four workers taking unpaid time off under the federal FMLA do so to deal with their own serious health condition or to care for an ill child, spouse, or parent.

Unlike previous generations, many American families today do not have a nonworking family member to provide care to an older relative with self-care needs, in large part because more women have entered the workforce, especially older women. Yet, with women working outside the home to make ends meet while also contributing to the economy, the competing demands of working families to balance work, caregiving and other family responsibilities have grown.

The majority (60 percent) of family caregivers are employed. The ability to take time off to care for a family member or close friend without losing income—or, worse, a job—is a growing social, health, and economic issue facing an estimated 24 million family caregivers who work.

Half (51 percent) of employed caregivers are older workers themselves, ages 50 and older, in their prime working years.  By 2024, older workers age 55 and older will account for 25 percent of the labor force, up from 13 percent in 2000. Moreover, contrary to what some may assume, family caregiving responsibilities impact people across their working lives. Almost three in four (73 percent) millennial family caregivers are employed, simultaneously working and providing care for an adult with a disability or an older adult with chronic care needs.

In the absence of national policy, states are leading the way to enact paid family leave programs. Six states and the District of Columbia have paid family leave programs to bond with a new child, care for oneself because of a serious health condition, or care for certain ill family members, and more states are considering enacting such policies.

While paid family leave benefits can raise cost and administrative concerns from the employer perspective, research in early-adopter states shows the value of paid family leave as a “caregiver-friendly” policy, not only for today’s workers, but employers, and the economy as a whole.  Paid family leave has been shown to lessen the strain of caregiving, provide family caregivers with greater financial security, increase employee retention, and help maintain a productive workforce. A majority of employers surveyed in states that have enacted these workplace leave benefits have not experienced negative impacts on their business.

Trends suggest an increasing share of family caregivers will be in the labor force in the future. Paid family leave policies are a sound investment, from both the perspective of employers and  America’s working families. Workers should not have to choose between keeping their jobs and providing care to a seriously ill family member.

 

Photo courtesy of iStock

 

Lynn Friss Feinberg, MSW, is a senior strategic policy advisor for the AARP Public Policy Institute.  She has conducted policy analysis and applied research on family caregiving and long-term services and supports for more than 30 years.