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Parents Of Newborns Aren't The Only Caregivers Who Need Paid Family Leave

(Rod Long/Unsplash)
(Rod Long/Unsplash)

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Politics aside, the president failed millions of Americans who are providing unpaid care to a family member, the people they care for and their employers on Tuesday night. President Trump said during his State of the Union speech that he is, “proud to be the first president to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave.”

That’s great. After all, the United States lags woefully behind much of the world when it comes to paid leave policies. But then Trump continued, “…so that every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child.” And that is where his message missed the mark.

When we as a country talk about, and ultimately offer, paid leave, we must include workers who have parents, not just workers who are parents.

According to the AARP and National Caregiver Alliance, approximately 34.2 million Americans provide unpaid care to an adult age 50 or older, and 60 percent of those family caregivers also work outside the home. The majority of those respondents report having suffered work-related difficulties as a result of their caregiving roles. They might switch to a less demanding job, take time off to accommodate their caregiving responsibilities, or quit working altogether. As a result, they lose job-related benefits and suffer lost wages. They need paid leave.

Interestingly, a recent report from the Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work program titled “The Caring Company,” notes it is higher level employees who are most likely to be affected by the challenges of balancing eldercare and career — and have left a position as a result. This trend represents a real threat to employers who suffer loss of talent and experience, decreased productivity, and significant costs recruiting, hiring and training new workers.

When we as a country talk about, and ultimately offer, paid leave, we must include workers who have parents, not just workers who are parents. 

The problem is only going to get worse.

Paul Osterman, a professor of human resources and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, and author of the book, “Who Will Care for Us: Long-term Care and the Long-Term Workforce,” predicts that by 2030 there will be a national shortage of 151,000 paid direct care workers and 3.8 million unpaid family caregivers.

A number of factors are contributing to the impending crisis. First, we live in a rapidly aging society; 10,000 people are turning 65 every day in this country. Second, as the HBS report points out, “many employers remain largely oblivious to the growing costs of this hidden ‘care economy.’” And finally, since one out of four direct care workers in the U.S. is an immigrant, our current immigration policies create uncertainty around the care workforce.

Those who suggest family caregivers are already covered by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and therefore do not need a federal paid leave policy may not be aware that many American workers are not eligible for that benefit. That’s because FMLA does not cover companies in the private sector with fewer than 50 employees, and, for an employee to be eligible, even in a company with 50 or more employees, he or she must work at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 milesIn the U.S., small businesses employed 58.9 million peo­ple, or 47.5 percent of the private workforce, in 2015, and firms employing fewer than 20 employees added 1.1. million net jobs, higher than any other segment. Never mind the fact that FMLA is an unpaid benefit.

Certainly, there are proposals for paid leave policies that apply to new parents as well as workers caring for parents, spouses and partners. The Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act cosponsored by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is one such bill, albeit probably not the legislation Trump is referring to.

It is critical that as any paid leave policy is brought to bear, we include caregiving workers of all stripes in the national conversation. Anything less is a disservice to millions of Americans.

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Related:

Liz O'Donnell Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Liz O’Donnell is the author of the forthcoming book, "Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Making a Living." She runs the website WorkingDaughter.com.

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