There are all kinds of scenarios in which you might need to take time off work to care for a family member. It might be a sick child or spouse. It might be an elderly parent or other relative who needs help. Whatever the reason, you are not alone.
Around 38 million Americans are currently caring for loved ones, according to research by AARP. Moreover, around 60% of the people caring for people with serious health conditions or disabilities are also holding down jobs.
The good news is that many employees are entitled to take time off work to care for relatives with serious health conditions under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Depending on your job and the amount of time you've been there, you could take up to 12 weeks of caregiving leave each year. The downside? In most parts of the country, that leave isn't paid.
The real cost of caregiving
In addition to the strain of looking after a loved one, caregivers also face a financial strain. Reduced hours can mean less cash in your bank account. Plus, if you miss a lot of hours at work throughout your career, whether that's because you are a parent or caring for an elderly relative, you won't contribute as much to your Social Security or employer retirement plan. That can mean less money for your old age. Finally, it can make it harder to climb the career ladder, which also limits your earning potential.
One way to calculate the actual cost of caregiving is to look at the total number of hours of care provided and multiply it by an hourly rate. This is how AARP reached its 2021 estimate of $600 billion worth of family care. It estimated caregivers provide 36 billion hours of care each year, which it valued at an average of $16.59 per hour.
The Urban Institute takes a different approach. It estimated the financial impact of family care on women — who are often the caregivers — across a lifetime. It says, “The employment-related costs for mothers of providing unpaid care to minor children and parents, parents-in-law, and spouses (including unmarried partners) with care needs average $295,000 over a lifetime.”
Why paid caregiving leave matters
Caring for elderly relatives is becoming an all-too-familiar scenario as we grapple with an aging population. It might be that a parent or grandparent needs help with daily tasks, from making doctors' appointments to shopping, preparing meals, or handling their finances. It can also take the form of medical and nursing tasks such as managing medications or caring for injuries.
If you are a caregiver, it can be overwhelming to try to keep all the plates spinning in terms of your job, your finances, and your family. Taking unpaid leave can help in terms of time, but there's only so long households can get by on a reduced income. As a result, for a lot of Americans, providing long-term care for elderly relatives means dipping into their savings or their own investments.
Paid caregiving leave can go some way to reducing the financial stress of looking after a seriously ill family member. It wouldn't magically fix all the problems, but it might ease some of the pressure. Put simply, people shouldn't have to choose between caring for a sick child or parent and earning money. And yet many Americans have to do just that.
The states that offer paid caregiving leave
According to advocacy group, A Better Balance, the following states (technically 13, plus D.C.) have some form of paid family leave legislation in place. The specifics, including what percentage of your income you might get and how long the payments last, vary depending on the state.
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New York
- Rhode Island
If you don't live in one of these states, don't despair. One step you can take is to talk to your employer. You may be able to use some of your paid time off, sick days, or vacation time to keep money coming in. Make sure you understand your rights around FMLA — it is something many workers are entitled to and your employer cannot fire you for taking it.
Many states offer other forms of caregiving support and you may be able to claim tax credits, medical assistance, or other financial help. Reach out to nonprofits and local authorities to see what you might be entitled to.
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