Work & Purpose

OPINION: COVID-19 Shows the U.S. Needs Universal Family Care

A Next Avenue Influencer in Aging on why care is a collective responsibility

Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

(Across caregiving and community, business and intergenerational attitudes, the pandemic and how we respond to it could change us forever. Next Avenue turned to some of our Influencers in Aging, a diverse group of thought leaders, for their insights, counsel and opinions of what could lie ahead — if we choose.)

Prior to COVID-19, every two weeks, two women would come to clean my family’s house. They’re employees of a small cleaning service. Three weeks ago, when COVID-19 started to change how people live and work, the owner called to ask if we’d be willing to provide additional money so she could give her employees paid sick leave. Of course, we said we would, and directed her to ALIA — an app for house cleaners to collect and manage benefits and contributions from clients. In the time of the coronavirus, I’ve seen small businessses like hers stepping up to make sure that their employees are protected and safe.

Bigger businesses could learn a thing or two from them. After all, care is a collective responsibility and we all have a role to play, especially now.

Who the New Coronavirus Laws Exclude

The new CARES Act provides direct payments to those who need it as a result of the pandemic and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides “expanded” paid leave for some workers. These are good starting points. But they exclude large corporations with more than 500 employees. How does this make any sense?

As we implement coronavirus relief efforts, we now have a chance to come up with long-term solutions that invest in the lasting strength of our families, such as Universal Family Care.

Even in a moment of a global pandemic, employers are still resistant to providing paid family and medical leave without strings attached — like tax breaks.

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It’s time to create fair policies that invest in human capital, especially for those whose “essential” jobs, or responsibilities in the home, are invaluable for the functioning of our society and our collective health and well-being.

Why Universal Family Care Is Needed

As we implement coronavirus relief efforts, we now have a chance to come up with long-term solutions that invest in the lasting strength of our families, such as Universal Family Care.

For 40 years, corporations have told us that they would take money from tax breaks and invest it into the economy and jobs, but that hasn’t worked out for many workers as the proliferation of poor-quality jobs has prevented them from sustaining themselves and their families.

As the nature of employment has changed over the last decades, many workers can no longer rely on the traditional employee-employer relationship for critical benefits. They are joining the ranks of the millions of others — those who are part-time or work in others’ homes or work in the fields — who never had that security in the first place.

When the threat of COVID-19 subsides, workers will still have families they need to care for and emergencies that force them to choose between their lives and their livelihood.

As the gig economy proliferates and protections for hourly workers are chipped away, more and more workers are being left without adequate support. Now, COVID-19 has brought a new awareness of how vulnerable independent contractors are.

And it has forced a conversation about the need for a new safety net for workers, one that includes access to care at every stage of life:  from child care to paid leave to long-term services and supports for older adults and people with disabilities.

When COVID-19 Subsides

Though some large employers have created emergency hardship funds during this crisis, receiving the money is usually contingent upon producing doctor’s notes, test results and more to receive “temporary paid-leave benefits.” Since that requires access to testing, which has been a serious challenge across the country, these funds have been largely symbolic.

It’s also unfortunate that these policies are largely temporary. When the threat of COVID-19 subsides, workers will still have families they need to care for and emergencies that force them to choose between their lives and their livelihood.

You shouldn’t have to win the “good-employer lottery” to care for your family.

At this time, corporations could be using their voices and significant social capital to advocate for policies we all need now and into the future. We need big business to understand that these policies are beneficial for the common good, and for business as well, and to commit to maintaining them beyond this emergency.

This crisis illustrates the need to strengthen our safety net for working people now more than ever.

Care and Caregiving: A Collective Issue

Though I’ve been working in this field for decades, as a worker- and caregiver advocate, I’ve never witnessed people so conscious of seeing care and caregiving as a collective issue and one that we must invest in and support.

Now is the time to build human-centered, collective solutions. That’s why we need Universal Family Care, a federal plan for child care, paid family leave and long-term care. (Next Avenue’s Richard Eisenberg wrote about the National Academy of Social Insurance’s report outlining how Universal Family Care could be done.)

The three coronavirus-related laws that have made it through Congress still ignore the important fact that the front lines start in our homes. Many working women and men are also caregivers who need paid time off and financial support to be there for their loved ones when they are needed the most.

An emergency Universal Family Care fund would provide expanded access to services for those who need care, and ensure that home care workers, domestic workers and family caregivers are tested, protected and cared for. It would also ensure that these people would be able to receive paid sick and family leave and/or a stipend for caregiving.

Although the stimulus laws put much-needed money in people’s pockets, there is much more that must be done to help Americans survive this crisis financially and emotionally.

A real investment in our caregiving system is a long-term investment in our loved ones, our public health and our nation’s economic future.

By Sarita Gupta
Sarita Gupta, a 2016 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, is director of Future of Work (ers) at Ford Foundation and the former co-director of Caring Across Generations (which she co-founded) and Jobs With Justice.@saritasgupta

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