We face a caregiving crisis in America. More than 40 million people provide uncompensated care for relatives every year. Most must juggle their caregiving with their employment; some have to make a choice between the two.
While some employers recognize the importance of providing paid leave for families trying to care for a loved one, many do not. Outdated workplace policies force employees to choose between maintaining income and supporting their families when they’re needed after the birth or adoption of a child or when a sick, disabled or aging family member faces a critical time.
Without paid family leave, elders are dying alone; parents are struggling to care for their newborns, and families are confronting financial crisis because they lose income while they take on caregiving responsibilities. With few exceptions workplaces do not provide workers with the support they need to handle unavoidable family challenges.
Yet most Marylanders are in favor of a paid family leave option. An Opinion Works poll released last week shows overwhelming support among Maryland voters “to create a family and medical leave insurance program that would provide workers with partial wage replacement for up to 12 weeks when they need time away from work to provide care for a new child, a seriously ill family member, or their own serious health condition.”
Fully 86 percent of voters favor this proposal. Support remains high when it is explained that the “family and medical leave insurance program would be funded by a premium collected through payroll deductions,” and that, “the average cost to workers could be in the range of $3 to $5 per week.” Even knowing that this program would be funded in part by a deduction from their paychecks, nearly four out of five voters (79 percent) continue to support the proposal.
Jenna and Jon Wilkinson from Arnold are among the thousands of Maryland residents who lacked paid medical and family leave during a critical time in their lives. During Jenna’s pregnancy, she was diagnosed with preeclampsia and was hospitalized for weeks — even taking her law school final exams there. Though Jenna had saved up her leave at work in anticipation of taking maternity leave, it wasn’t enough to cover all the days she missed work.
As her 2-pound daughter, born 13 weeks prematurely, was whisked away to the NICU, Jenna was worried about not only her newborn but also the family’s financial situation. Jon’s income wasn’t enough to cover all the family’s expenses, especially with unexpected medical costs. The family relied on the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) public assistance program, took advantage of free meals at the hospital, put their plans to move on hold and debated which bills they could pay.
The Wilkinsons played by the rules: Both adults worked, saved and planned ahead. But their plans went awry. This can happen to any of us.
Only 17 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave. Nearly 25 percent of American women take 10 or fewer days of maternity leave, putting them and their children at risk physically and emotionally. Only one father in 20 with a professional job takes more than two weeks leave after a child is born. For low-income dads, the numbers are even more striking: Nearly 60 percent of poor working fathers report taking zero weeks of paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child.
The U.S. is the only industrialized country without a paid family leave policy. This causes hardships for families and hurts our bottom line. According to the Harvard Business Review, most companies report that offering family-friendly benefit programs like paid family leave strengthens employee loyalty and morale and improves productivity.
Smaller employers that offer paid family leave are better able to compete with bigger businesses when it comes to recruiting and retaining a stellar workforce. When paid family leave is administered through an insurance program like the one proposed for Maryland, small businesses benefit because the cost is shared.
The bill under consideration in the General Assembly would establish a family and medical leave insurance program in Maryland to create a safety net when workers must take leave to become caregivers. All families need time to care. The time to act is now.
Margaret E. Williams (mwilliams@ marylandfamilynetwork.org) is executive director of the Maryland Family Network.