I want to take a minute to recognize the 40 million Americans who perform a great labor of love every day: family caregivers. Thanks to their tireless efforts, parents, spouses, and other loved ones are able to remain at home — where they want to be. Day after day, these unsung heroes take on huge responsibilities that can be overwhelming, stressful and exhausting.
In addition to this labor of love, many juggle full or part-time jobs — like Gayle, Nacy and Norman.
For the past 10 years, my husband and I have been caregivers. At first we were caring for his mom, Marion, every weekend/every night. Since we worked full time, it meant that we never had any downtime.
For 14 years, I provided care for my mother with Alzheimer’s who passed away at 89 years old… I was in my 50s juggling a full-time job, with her full-time care. Since my mother was a wanderer, or as some say a curious “wonderer,” my biggest concern was keeping her safe… I had to come in late or leave early. Working today in Alzheimer’s support programs, I know that not all employers equally understand what caregivers face.
I helped my wife with household chores and visiting the bathroom in the last year of her life. I had no idea how ill she was… I still had to work; there was no way out of it. I didn’t have enough money saved up to live any length of time without a paycheck, and I needed the medical coverage for both of us. Paid family leave would have been nice if it would have been available. My employer did help as much as possible, but not without the occasional “I have worked with you, now it is time for you to work with me.” In other words, if something came up, they expected to come first.
Fighting for family caregivers
I know firsthand that family caregivers — like Gayle, Nacy and Norman — face physical, emotional and financial challenges as they juggle work and caregiving. That’s why, in states across the country, AARP is fighting for commonsense solutions — to help all family caregivers balance work and caregiving responsibilities so they don’t face losing pay, or even losing their jobs. This flexibility may come through state improvements to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or to employers’ paid and/or unpaid leave policies.
Here are some highlights from across the states:
- Recently, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the ELECT (Eligible Leave for Employee Caregiving Time) Act. The new law goes into effect Jan. 1 and would give family caregivers the flexibility to use their own sick days to care for a loved one.
- In Puerto Rico, a law similar to Illinois’ ELECT Act passed, requiring employers with 16 or more employees to allow their employees to use up to five of their own sick days to care for a loved one.
- Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont signed the Healthy Workplaces Bill into law this year, requiring all employers to provide limited paid sick leave to full-time workers.
- In New York, the state budget included a provision to give family caregivers a limited amount of paid time off from work so they can bring their loved one to the doctor or provide other necessary care.
No one should be asked to choose between caring for a loved one and losing their job. We have more to do to ensure working family caregivers have the support they deserve.
Elaine Ryan is the vice president of state advocacy and strategy integration (SASI) for AARP. She leads a team of dedicated legislative staff members who work with AARP state offices to advance advocacy with governors and state legislators, helping people 50-plus attain and maintain their health and financial security.