With U.S. Paid Leave Laws in Limbo, Employers Fill the Gap
Recently, Susan Van Klink shared her personal story about being a caregiver for her terminally-ill dad and the challenges involved in the role. A week after putting her story out there, the post went viral: she received 1,325 comments and more than 26,000 reactions.
Her message—one of acknowledgement and support for caregivers—had clearly found a commisterate audience.
Van Klink, a Canadian, is fortunate in that her employer Grokker, her boss Lorna Borenstein, and her team have been very supportive of her, personally, and of her need for flexibility to deal with the many demands and responsibilities she’s juggling.
Not everyone is so fortunate.
Unpaid vs. paid family leave
The push for paid family leave, which doesn’t exist in the United States as of now, is different from FMLA which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to certain employees each year. In 2020, during the pandemic, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided eligible employees in every state in the country with temporary paid leave. Aside from that, though, BLS data indicates that only 16% of private industry workers have access to paid leave as there are a handful of states (9 out of 50, and D.C.) that provide paid leave.
The United States (U.S.) is one of the wealthiest and most advanced countries on the planet, yet it has no formal paid family leave laws or policies in place to ensure employers are supportive of their employees beyond the 12-weeks of unpaid time off for parents “at all public agencies, all public and private schools and at all companies with 50 or more employees,” according to ABC News.
As Joe Pinsker wrote in an article for The Atlantic: “The U.S. is the only wealthy country in the world that leaves new parents to fend for themselves.” And, despite some hopeful signs as Congress continues to haggle over the budget package, that some level of aid—from 12, to four to zero weeks, and then back to four in December—might actually make its way into the final version of the bill, Pinsker is skeptical.
Caregiving, though, isn’t limited to new parents as Van Klink so compellingly points out. That’s become increasingly more apparent since the pandemic, as many families took on the added burdens of caring for, and educating, their children; caring for elderly parents; and taking care of family members who contracted the coronavirus. Even those not impacted in those ways have suffered from increased stress, anxiety, mental health, and substance abuse issues.
Since sharing her personal story on LinkedIn, Van Klink tells Visier, “I’ve just been inundated with stories of people who are struggling with caregiving, and really don’t feel like they have the support from their employers to help them manage what is an incredibly stressful time,” she says, adding: “It’s both physically and emotionally draining.”
Employees are tired, they’re hurting, and, increasingly, they’re indicating that they’re not going to take it any more as literally millions are leaving their jobs, or the workforce entirely, in search of greater flexibility and reduced demands.
So it’s up to employers, their HR departments, people managers, and supervisors to step up to the plate to address and respond to employees’ caretaker needs.
How employers can help employees who are also caregivers
While COVID has created challenges of its own over the past several months, it’s also helped in some ways, says Van Klink. For instance, some people who are not able to work from home find that doing so provides more flexibility to tackle their caregiving challenges.
More broadly, though, she says, it’s opened peoples’ eyes to the personal situations that employees are facing and how pervasive caregiving demands really are. In the past, Van Klink says, companies almost wanted to pretend like employees didn’t have a life outside of work. Today that would be impossible to do as they’ve literally been invited into employees’ homes where it’s not unlikely for them to glimpse other family members and pets sharing that space. “People are more understanding than ever before,” she says.
Those interactions can be a natural jumping off point for conversations that can lead to greater empathy and understanding. It’s also important to remember that many of these experiences are shared.
Sharing experiences and challenges related to caregiving—especially when done by senior leaders and HR professionals, can pave the way for more open conversations among all employees. It creates a level playing field for employees to understand that they’re not alone in the challenges they face, and they shouldn’t feel embarrassed or anxious about not only sharing their experiences—but asking for help.
In fact, Van Klink says that her personal recommendation for companies would be “more around caring accommodations than compassionate leave.”
Encourage managers to allow flexibility
One of the challenges in addressing employees’ caregiving needs, says Van Klink, is the wide range of variability that exists. “No two caregiving situations are the same,” she notes—some people have access to extended resources, some don’t; some are caring for kids, some for adults; some have financial resources that can allow them to take time off from work, others desperately need to retain their jobs—some are fearful they’ll lose them.
As we all wait to see if the U.S. will join the ranks of the hundreds of other nations around the world that offer some form of paid family leave for employees, there is still much that can be done to help employees minimize the stress and burnout they may be experiencing because of caregiving demand. It starts with awareness.
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