Last summer, something amazing happened on Capitol Hill. There was an agreement between members of Congress from opposing parties. Astonishing! Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that there should be paid family leave. Now, before you get too excited, that’s about where the good feelings started and ended. While both parties agreed on the basic premise, they put forth wildly different proposals.
Paid family leave is the concept that employees should be granted paid time off from work to take care of family members who suffer from serious health issues, or to care for a newborn child. Currently, under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), certain employees may take unpaid leave for 12 weeks and be guaranteed their job upon return. This leave is for serious health issues for an employee or their family member (spouse, parent or child), new child or facts surrounding the deployment of a service member. The problem with the current FMLA is that employees are not guaranteed income during their leave of absence from work.
So why should pay be included in our federal laws that govern family leave? First, only about 10 percent of employees are granted paid family leave from their employer. Furthermore, the employees whose employers offer paid leave are generally higher paid workers. In addition, only six states and the District of Columbia currently have a paid family leave policy. Secondly, not having a federal paid family leave policy causes financial hardship because employees are not receiving their regular income. Research demonstrates that a paid family leave policy with 2/3 wage replacement could reduce family economic insecurity by 81 percent.
While most people associate paid family leave with new parents, many people might be surprised to learn that this issue directly impacts seniors. For example, 18 percent of people take FMLA to care for a family member, including parents. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “The average caregiver over 50 who leaves the workforce to care for a parent loses $303,880 in wages, Social Security and private pensions when they do so.” Furthermore, it’s not just caregivers that need paid family leave. The labor force participation rate for seniors (65+) has grown significantly over the last 25 years. Too often, seniors, because of chronic conditions, must take time off from work to attend to their own serious health matters.
Presently, there are two competing ideas to implement paid family leave. Legislation released over the summer sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ann Wagner would allow new parents, after a child is born, to borrow against their future Social Security for paid parental leave. The benefit from the federal government will last only a few months and will delay people from taking their Social Security benefits by three to six months, for every benefit.
In theory this legislation sounds promising, especially in the short term. However, paid family leave should not come at the expense of the Social Security retirement system!
According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, studies demonstrate how challenging it is for workers to forecast their fiscal future in retirement. Having to decide between paid family leave and future retirement defeats the entire purpose of Social Security. The main point of the Social Security Trust Fund is to serve as a secure pot of money for retirement, not individual accounts people can borrow against.
In addition, this proposed legislation does nothing to help people who need paid family leave for themselves, like seniors in the workforce, or for adults who need a source of income while taking care of their senior parent.
Fortunately, there is a better approach!
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act sponsored by Senator Kristen Gillibrand and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro provides a significantly better alternative and does not threaten employees’ future Social Security. This proposal provides paid family and medical leave for newborn children, care for a family member (including a parent) or an employee’s serious health condition. According to the findings from the FAMILY Act:
1. “The average worker age 50 and older who leaves the workforce to care for an elderly parent loses more than $300,000 in earnings and retirement income. Working caregivers should not have to risk their family’s economic security to fulfill their caregiving obligations.”
2. “The population aged 65 and over is expected to double over the next few decades. The number of people with chronic conditions is expected to reach nearly 160,000,000 by 2020. Many of these individuals will at some point require family care, and for older workers still in the workforce, many will need time off at some point to address serious health conditions.”
3. “Ensuring working family caregivers have paid family leave to care for ailing elders could drive down Medicare costs by decreasing recurrences of ailments and re-admittance into hospitals”.
Furthermore, this legislation funds paid family leave through additional revenue stemming from a very modest increase in the payroll tax split evenly between employees and employers. The average cost to employees would be $2.00 per week. This would cover the benefit to individuals and the program’s administrative costs.
While, I think the legislation has tremendous promise, it’s not without question. For example, the Social Security Trust Fund will not be able to meet all its financial obligations around 2034. Should this legislation be part of a bigger plan to place Social Security on more secure financial footing? Certainly, these are fair questions to ask. However, this all part of the legislative process.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle agree that paid family leave in some iteration is important. Like all issues, there are competing approaches to solve the problem. However, funding paid family leave by taking away from Social Security only opens an additional can of worms. Taking from one hand to give to the other is irresponsible. A paid family leave approach, guided by the principles from the FAMILY Act, will help ensure that basic economic needs of all types of families are being met.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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