Americans face a moral imperative in which we must decide how to provide the much needed care we all need at some point in our lives. With an aging population staring us in the face, the need for paid leave to care for family members is no longer a nicety but a necessity. Add to that, the large number of people who have long COVID symptoms and are not able to work, and we have all the makings of a society that needs a complete and total revamp of our approach to care. More people are going to need to leave their workplace to care for others, and they will need the financial support to do so.
Our Aging Population Requires Care
Current demographics tells us that a surge of elderly people will need care in the very near future. According to the American Society on Aging, “We already know that the 45- to 64-year-old population will grow only 1 percent between 2010 and 2030, while the age 80 and older baby boomer population increases by 79 percent. As the age 80 and older baby boomer cohort grows, the number of family caregivers available to assist them drops dramatically, from 7.5 in 2010 to 2.9 in 2050, a more than 50 percent decline. Alarm bells have been going off and researchers and advocates have been busy estimating the impact on the long-term-care system.”
Add to that information the fact that baby boomers have not been good at saving for their retirement and the financial burden will fall on their children. This leaves us in a situation where there are half as many family members available to give care with fewer financial resources. Those family members will need societal support if they are expected to provide that care.
Health insurance cutbacks send patients home for care
As health insurance providers allow less and less time in medical facilities, family caregivers are now expected to perform many medical and nursing tasks at home. For example, administering injections and caring for wounds are common at-home tasks. Family members receive little training or support in performing these tasks. According to AARP, “As health care and long term services and supports (LTSS) shift from institutional to home-based care, the burdens on family caregivers will likely increase without adequate supportive services for caregiving.“
We are quickly coming to a point where the demographic shift requires a comprehensive policy for long term services and supports for both the older persons needing care and the family and friends providing the caregiving. If we do not get ahead of this crisis in caregiving, we will see the results in loss of employment and many more people facing bankruptcy as they have to choose between caregiving and work. Employers, as well, will find that they cannot keep employees because many will need to leave for caregiving purposes.
Changes in family make-up
As Americans have become more mobile and no longer have the family support ecosystem of earlier decades, we must be intentional in defining who is eligible for support when providing caregiving. Family circles are changing drastically. Whom you consider family is changing rapidly as well. By necessity, people are broadening their definition of whom they consider family when they are far away from their biological families or no longer have family members who can help. The demographics of who constitutes a family is shifting, and our laws and support systems must adjust to the ways that we define family members for the purposes of care. Because fewer couples with children are married, the rules regarding whom you can use FMLA leave to care for do not always apply. Our current Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) laws do not allow unmarried couple to take care of one another. FMLA allows people to take leave to care for themselves, a parent (no in-laws), or a son or daughter under 18 years of age or a child with a disability who is older. Now, due to the scourge of the opioid epidemic, many working grandparents are taking care of grandchildren with no FMLA protection or funds from the foster care system.
Why is paid leave a part of the solution?
Whether an employee needs to take leave for the birth of a new child or to care for an aging parent, the research shows that paid family leave benefits workers, businesses, and the economy as a whole. In fact, a study conducted for Rutgers University Center for Women and Work, Pay Matters: The Positive Economic Impacts of Paid Family Leave for Families, Businesses and the Public found many positive effects including:
- Women who report taking paid leave are more likely to be working 9 to 12 months after a child’s birth than are those who report taking no leave at all (“non‐leave takers”).
- Paid family leave increases wages for women with children. Women who report leaves of 30 or more days are 54% more likely to report wage increases in the year following the child’s birth than are women who take no leave at all.
- Women who return to work after a paid leave have a 39% lower likelihood of receiving public assistance and a 40% lower likelihood of food stamp receipt in the year following the child’s birth, when compared to those who return to work and take no leave at all.
- Men who return to work after a paid family leave have a significantly lower likelihood of receiving public assistance and food stamps in the year following the child’s birth, when compared to those who return to work and take no family leave at all.
Additionally, when workers know that they can depend on their company to support them during a family health crisis, their morale and loyalty toward the employer increase. While that might not seem like an obvious financial bonus, training new employees is a huge cost to employers.
The good news is that eleven states and Washington, D.C. have already stepped up and passed mandatory paid leave laws while others are in the process of doing so. Unfortunately, North Carolina is not one of those states.
While the exact amount of leave and percentage of salary paid varies, most provide at least six weeks of leave and expand the number of people who can be considered family members to include domestic partners, in-laws, and grandparents. In 2021, Connecticut passed an even more generous paid family leave law that includes twelve weeks of paid leave and anyone whose “close association whether by blood or affinity, is equal to that of a family member.” All of these laws are funded by a payroll deduction of anywhere from .08% to 1.2%. Of course, federal legislation would be best for all Americans, but in spite of President Biden’s attempts, we do not have consensus to pass such legislation at this time.
What can you do?
Push your state legislators to bring a paid leave bill to the table and force those opposed to consider the issue. The momentum for worker protections is rising and now is a great moment to advance legislation statewide. Even if you are not affected by this issue right now, at some point in your life, you very likely will be. For more information visit: NC Families Care | Creating Healthier Families.
Anna Lynch is a “writer, educator, and champion for all things women.”