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Debra Ness's picture

It’s November – a month many associate with Thanksgiving, the day next week when families and friends across the country will come together to celebrate the things they’re grateful for. But November is also National Family Caregivers Month, and tens of millions of women and men in this country who care for ill or older adults and children with special health needs are struggling because our nation’s workplace policies fail to show them the appreciation they deserve.

At least 43.5 million Americans serve as caregivers for adults over 50 in the United States, and most of them are women. Most also have paying jobs in addition to their caregiving responsibilities. These caregivers inevitably need time away from their jobs to deal with their loved ones’ serious illnesses or medical emergencies. And yet just 12 percent of the workforce has access to paid family leave through their employers, and millions can’t earn paid sick days for more short-term caregiving needs.

Ensuring caregivers have access to policies that enable them to meet their families’ caregiving and financial needs is essential. Forty-eight percent of caregivers who take time off to fulfill their responsibilities at home say they lose income. And the average caregiver over 50 who leaves the workforce to care for a parent loses more than $300,000 in income and retirement savings over her or his lifetime. Caregivers themselves often can’t get the care they need due to limited time and stretched finances.

These challenges and the strain family caregivers face today is especially worrisome as the aging population and our country’s caregiving needs steadily increase. By 2030, the number of older adults in the United States is expected to rise to nearly 20 percent of the population. We also know that approximately 92 percent of older adults today have at least one chronic condition. As a nation, we are simply not equipped to keep up with this reality.

The promising news is that states and cities are leading the way when it comes to enacting laws that support family caregivers, such as paid family leave and paid sick days. Right now, three states – California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – have paid family programs, and three states and 16 cities have (or will soon have) paid sick days laws. There are also encouraging signs that employers are increasingly recognizing the need for policies that support family caregivers.

But having the support needed to meet work and family responsibilities shouldn’t depend on where family caregivers live or work, or the preferences of their employers. That’s why federal policy standards like the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act are essential. The FAMILY Act would establish a national paid leave insurance program that would guarantee workers some pay when they need time for their own serious illness or to care for a family member. And the Healthy Families Actwould create a basic paid sick days standard.

As a nation, we can do much more to honor the heroic work of family caregivers. As many of us spend time with our loved ones and friends next week and in the coming holiday season, let’s remind our elected officials just how important family friendly workplace policies are for the country’s families and our future. Legislation like the FAMILY Act and the Healthy Families Act would give family caregivers and all working families some of the support they need – and the thanks they deserve.

Originally published at the blog of National Partnership for Women and Families.

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