In the United States, we prefer short-term remedies over solutions. As a global leader, we boast of our spending power, investment, and influence across the world. Yet, our investment in everyday Americans is lacking. The Build Back Better Plan could change this by providing paid family leave to every American. With the future of this legislation uncertain, the proposed four weeks of paid family leave in the bill is start but is not fully sufficient to care for aging family members.
Four weeks of paid family leave has significant implications for U.S. society and Americans’ wellbeing at a time when retirements of Baby Boomers will drive demand for caregivers’ and particularly women – already the primary caregivers in their own generation. Women, and at times men, may have to take on caregiving for their elders, leaving or limiting full participation in the workforce to do so. This could make the current labor market stresses even worse. In my experience as a parent and in supporting my brother as the primary caregiver of grandparents, caring requires extensive time.
Caregiving is an around-the-clock, collaborative effort. From understanding diagnoses, arranging doctor visits, ensuring nutritional needs are met, to scheduling appointments; these obligations extend well beyond four weeks into years. Much of the time required to meet the healthcare needs of my grandparents began early in the workday and extended late into the evening and often times at night. It is a job in and of itself. Though my grandparents are members of the Silent generation, the lessons on the time needed to care for aging loved ones became clear.
There are impending care needs of the Baby Boomer generation, which is retiring at record levels. Many people 65 and older prefer to age in place at their home. This influences how care is orchestrated. My brother, and I from a distance, were in continual conversation about arranging home healthcare through agencies, scheduling the delivery of meals, monitoring bill payments and organizing appointments. The time constraints of facilitating care influenced the career decisions and trajectory of my brother in the field of luxury retail. Access to paid leave would have provided options and eased fears of long-term job insecurity as my brother led a team of associates.
Retiring with dignity and financial security is a goal of all workers. It was the goal of my grandparents. Yet, there are clear challenges, that can be physically, mentally, and financially overwhelming for the caregiver and aging family member. Generation X and Millennials are in a difficult position and are making daily concessions with managing student loans, shifting careers, purchasing a home and/or parenting. With these competing priorities, four weeks of paid family leave scratch the surface in caring for aging family members.
When does paid family leave begin or end? Many factors influence the decision of a family member to take time to care for a loved one. At minimum, 12 weeks of paid family leave should be provided with flexibility on how it can be used. Flexibility allows time for workers to initiate care and establish systems of support in preparation for returning to work. This would encourage full participation in the workforce, thereby boosting productivity. In addition, resources to assess and evaluate the impact of paid leave would offer transparency to stakeholders and provide feedback for improvement.
Caregiving is an around-the-clock effort and requires extensive time to orchestrate especially for aging family members. With hopes of The Build Back Better Plan passing in 2022, 4 weeks of paid leave is a starting point. However, it is important for our nation to be solutions oriented and assess, examine, and evaluate ways to further support Americans as we build back better a nation in need of reinvigoration.
Joy-Nicole Smith served as a caregiver at multiple points on her educational, professional, and personal journeys. From caring for a disabled mother in childhood, rearing children, and caring for her grandparents; she firmly believes paid leave for all is crucial in building back a better America.