A need for paid family leave

As Hurricane Florence approaches North Carolina, thousands of families are figuring out the best ways to care for their ailing loved ones. This challenge is especially real in the face of the rushing storm, but countless families face this problem in slow motion every day. That’s why paid family medical leave is so important for the most vulnerable in our state — seniors and the kids they often care for.

Some seniors are still participating in the workforce, and have no support in the event of serious illness or injury. Others are themselves caregivers for their family members. But all seniors would benefit from paid leave one way or the other.

It’s no surprise by now that North Carolina has a growing elderly population. Across the state, hundreds more Baby Boomers reach retirement age each week. Even now, more than 1.4 million North Carolina households include a person aged 65 or older, and this population is expected to double by 2050.

As the “Silver Tsunami” builds and these numbers grow, so too will the need for caregivers. Family members are often the first people seniors can turn to, so as a result, thousands of older adults rely on the support of family caregivers to age and live with dignity in their homes. Many of these seniors live with functional and cognitive limitations. Nationally, 20 percent of those over the age of 65 need help with basic daily activities. About 9 in 10 adults living at home with a physical, cognitive, or chronic health condition rely on unpaid family caregivers as their main source of help with everyday activities. Almost 1.2 million people are caregivers for their own family members suffering from chronic illnesses.

Paid leave gives family members the support they need to provide this care without having to choose between their bills and their loved ones. Although the Family Medical leave Act allows many employees to take up to 90 days unpaid leave away from work to care for themselves or their families in times of childbirth and illness, the United States is one of three countries in the world that does not provide paid family and medical leave.

Unfortunately, only 13 percent of working people in the South Atlantic region have access to paid leave. To address this problem, paid family medical insurance allows workers to receive income when they have to take time off from work to care for a newborn, a sick family member, or even themselves, when they experience qualifying medical issues. With an FMLI program, working people pay a nominal insurance premium of a few dollars every month into a fund that then provides everyone who qualifies with a specific percentage of their pre-leave income when they need to take FMLA-eligible time off.

Seniors not only receive care, they also provide care to their family members, and they need paid leave just as much. There are 1.3 million family caregivers in North Carolina who provide close to 1.2 billion hours of care per year to their loved ones. This includes 98,676 North Carolina grandparents who are primary caregivers for 177,662 of their own grandchildren.

Many of these seniors continue to work while providing care to their loved ones. Although some seniors in North Carolina are able to retire in relative financial security, many more are not. In fact, North Carolina is currently home to more than 233,000 people over the age of 65 who are either currently employed or actively looking for work, according to the American Community Survey. Additionally, 57,331 of the grandparents providing primary care to their grandchildren in North Carolina are still working.

Too many care-giving seniors cannot afford to take unpaid leave to provide care for their loved ones. Seniors in North Carolina earn a median household income of just $36,252 every year, a lot less than their younger counterparts, who earn $55,226 each year. And about 22 percent of the state’s seniors are living in or near poverty — below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. One out of every four grandparents with primary care for their grandchildren are living in poverty.

The bottom line: Paid leave doesn’t just help family members care for their aging loved ones. It also ensures working seniors can afford to take time away from their jobs to care for their family members — especially their grandchildren — when they fall ill without having to sacrifice their incomes and financial peace of mind. North Carolina elected leaders should join the growing national movement to make it a reality for the people of their state.

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Allan Freyer is the director of the Workers’ Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center.

Allan Freyer is the director of the Workers’ Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center.