Matt Bahl is vice president and head of workplace financial health at Financial Health Network. Views are the author's own.
The national conversation around paid leave remains centered on the lack of access to such a benefit. And for good reason. Recent data from the Financial Health Network and the National Partnership for Women & Families found that only two thirds of workers could take time to care for a sick or injured family member or for their own serious health condition or injury. This makes the United States an outlier amongst the wealthiest nations, as many countries have passed comprehensive paid family leave laws.
While the need for access to paid leave remains crucial — and is the principal focus of policy debates in Washington — is access alone enough? Obviously the details of any paid leave policy matters. For example, under Family and Medical Leave Act framework, leave is unpaid, unless the employer decides to pay for it; in many instances paying for the leave is accomplished through PTO programs. If individuals do not have PTO balances sufficient to cover their time off it can result in leave being unpaid or individuals accruing PTO deficits. The duration of leave is also a crucial detail that must be ironed out. But the detail that is often overlooked in these conversations is, how do workers transition back into the workplace once their paid leave expires?
In many instances, individuals are expected to transition back to full capacity immediately upon their return from paid leave. While state and federal disability laws may provide some transitional support for workers returning from their own serious health condition or disability, such transitional support may not be available for caregivers (e.g., those caring for a loved one with a serious health condition or disability). For caregivers, the implicit expectation is that they are ready to perform their full work duties, at full capacity, immediately upon returning from their leave. For any individual who has cared for a loved one, this assumption of an immediate return to "normal" may ring hollow.
For starters, caregiving obligations are not easily conducive to hard and fast timelines. While any policy will need to draw a line in the leave duration sand, that line does not mean that caregiving obligations magically disappear once that line is reached. For many caregivers, commitments and duties can last years or even a lifetime. This is why the paid leave conversation needs to include considerations for how to best support caregivers in their transition back from paid leave and into a work and caregiving balance.
There will always be some caregivers who elect to exit the workforce to become a full-time caregiver. That option, however, should not be the result of a default decision due to inadequate consideration of how to best support workers after a paid leave period. There are a number of considerations that should be part of the paid leave discussion.
First is flexible or alternative work arrangements. COVID and the recent Great Resignation (or great reprioritization) have pushed many employers to rethink workplace arrangements. From fully remote work to more flexible and alternative work arrangements, employers are experimenting in real time how best to meet the needs of their business and the needs of workers. But flexible or alternative work arrangements may also be a strategy to address the needs of caregivers returning from a paid leave. Indeed, a recent report from AARP suggests that a substantial amount (42%) of working caregivers are looking for flexibility or alternative work schedules to help them manage caregiving and work responsibilities.
Also crucial is support for women in the workplace. More than 75% of caregivers are women, according to some stats. Additionally, the Pew Research Center has consistently found that women are more likely than men to adjust their careers for family. But perhaps the most startling statistic — one that has significant potential consequences for employers, work and America’s economy — is that women are more likely than men to attend college. At the end of the 2020-21 academic year, 59.5% of college students were women. This education gap between men and women has been widening for close to 40 years, but appears to be accelerating. If our most educated workers are also the ones most likely to adjust their careers or drop out of the workforce to care for a loved one, then we may be facing a caregiving tsunami that has significant and far-reaching potential consequences.
Paid leave is certainly part of the solution, but more concerted efforts around long-term flexible work options may be just as important. And there is some evidence to support this. Research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that 75% of European countries and 90% of Nordic countries offer work schedule flexibility. For the Nordic countries, this research found that such policies and practices have helped maintain "high levels of female employment without a large gender gap in average weekly working hours."