The Time for Paid Family Leave for Family Caregivers Is Now
Why these Influencers in Aging urge Congress to pass the president's new proposal
Rochelle Long, 64, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, has cared for her mother and her aunt for more than a decade. Both of these women in Long's life are among the more than 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer's disease.
As a family caregiver, Long is forced to make untenable choices between taking care of the people she loves and working a full-time job as an executive assistant for the city of Cleveland. It's a balancing act that has pushed her to the brink.
"Over the years I have had to use all of my personal time off, including vacation, sick, personal and comp time, to cover all of my mom's and aunt's needs," Long says. That leaves little to no time for her to care for herself.
President Biden's Paid Family Leave Proposal
There are more than 53 million family caregivers like Long in the U.S., and most are in the workforce wrestling with these same impossible choices.
Yet in the midst of COVID-19 recovery, there's a glimmer of hope on the horizon. President Joe Biden's proposed American Families Plan and its paid family and medical leave provisions described in his address to Congress April 28 would extend protections to family caregivers of older adults.
As Biden said in his speech: "No one should have to choose between a job and a paycheck or taking care of themselves and their loved ones or parent or spouse or child."
"I have had to use all of my personal time off, including vacation, sick, personal and comp time, to cover all of my mom's and aunt's needs."
For the first time, national conversations on paid family and medical leave are including caregivers of older adults, a group historically left out of paid family and medical leave policies — even the emergency response legislation passed in spring 2020 in response to COVID-19.
President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden have been visible champions for the needs of family caregivers, including ones who support wounded warriors and veterans. Drawing from their lived experience, the new administration — and the many in Congress who also have firsthand experience with caregiving — have opened the conversation on paid family and medical leave.
Responding to the president's proposal, Gerontological Society of America CEO James Appleby said: "We thank the Biden administration for recognizing family caregivers in its American Families Plan by including a comprehensive national paid family medical leave program. The program will allow people to manage their health and the health of their families, which will benefit us all as we age."
How the Paid Family Leave Plan Would Work
The American Families Plan guarantees 12 weeks of paid parental, family and personal leave by the tenth year of the program. It ensures workers will receive partial wage replacement to take time to care for a seriously ill loved one, deal with a loved one's military deployment, find safety from domestic violence, heal from their own serious illness or take time to deal with the death of a loved one.
The program would provide up to $4,000 a month, with a minimum of two-thirds of average weekly wages replaced, rising to 80% for the lowest-wage workers (who currently have the least access to paid leave).
This lifeline can't come soon enough.
Millions of caregivers, particularly women of color, have been hard hit by the pandemic and other health challenges such as Alzheimer's. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank, a staggering 19% of adults have left the workforce to provide care for an adult family member during the pandemic; 16% of Latino and 13% of Black adults have done so.
But women of color are less likely to have access to flexible hours, paid leave and the ability to work from home than others, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving have found, they are more likely to devote more hours to caregiving and more likely to be working full- time while balancing caregiving responsibilities.
Using paid leave benefits improved the health and emotional well-being of caregivers.
Said Rochelle Long, "Paid leave would be life-changing for my mom's care and for my own health and emotional well-being. It's difficult to be present and focused when I'm constantly trying to be in two places at once."
Research suggests Long is right. A 2018 UsAgainstAlzheimer's survey of employed dementia caregivers found that using paid leave benefits improved the health and emotional well-being of caregivers. Yet less than half of dementia caregivers have access to them.
Today, too many family caregivers are forced to choose between providing care for their loved ones and earning a living. For many, work provides respite from care activities, social engagement and even meaning and purpose over the course of our lives.
The President's proposal and draft legislation from the House Ways & Means Committee are great starting points for identifying what a unifying approach to family-friendly workplaces can look like.
Public Support for Paid Family Leave
Most Americans (about 80%, according to a National Partnership for Women & Families survey) support the creation of a national paid leave program, including 74% of Republican voters.
Caregiving, and supporting caregivers, isn't a "red" or "blue" issue; it's a bipartisan issue that impacts every person who has needed care or who has cared for a sick friend, a loved one with a disability, a friend with dementia.
More than 60 aging, caregiving and disability rights organizations recently sent a letter to the Biden administration saying it's time to make care and work easier across the lifespan — from child care to older adult care. This kind of multisector collaboration must continue to put pressure on Washington to include family caregivers of older adults in any future leave legislation.
If COVID-19 taught us anything, it's that we can't go back to the way things were. We can no longer wait until policymakers and employers come around to the fact that America's workers have family responsibilities.
If we really believe that families are the backbone of our society, then it's time for our policies to match our values. The American Families Plan moves us closer to this reality.