The aging of America is, without question, the biggest demographic shift in our country’s history, and it brings into sharp focus the need for paid leave for family caregivers. While a smattering of state and local governments have passed laws providing such leave, the time has come for employers to start filling in the gaps.
This transformation of the U.S. population is a coast-to-coast phenomenon, with the number of people ages 65 and older now growing faster than other age groups in all 50 states. By 2030, 20 percent of Americans will be 65 or older, compared with 14 percent today.
Of course, as the country grows older, so too does our workforce. People who are 50 and older now make up one-third of our working population and, within just five years, that will rise to almost 40 percent.
Companies in many industries report a shortage of skilled workers. For businesses to remain competitive, it will become increasingly critical for them to employ older workers. Employees who are 50 and older add considerable value to an organization. They are the most engaged age cohort of all the generations, according to AARP’s A Business Case for Workers Age 50+ study report. They also make unique and important contributions due to their experience, professionalism, work ethic, lower turnover rate and knowledge.
Focus on Health
Health and wellness benefits will be key to recruiting and retaining these workers, as they and their loved ones age. One of the most important challenges employers will face is the plight of family caregivers and those caregivers’ access to services that promote physical and mental well-being.
Today, more than 42 million family members in the U.S.—most of whom are between the ages of 45 and 64—are providing an estimated $470 billion in unpaid care for older and ailing loved ones each year. They help with everyday activities, including bathing, dressing, feeding, managing personal finances and providing transportation. And while women still shoulder most of this work, men are increasingly assuming such roles as well.
The majority of these family caregivers are still in the workforce. That means about 17 percent of our workers—some 24 million employees—are now tending to elderly and ill loved ones in addition to doing their day jobs. That number is certain to grow in the coming years, and businesses will feel the effect.
The resulting fatigue and stress of these responsibilities often negatively affect productivity and earnings because of the workday interruptions and absenteeism that result. Estimates of the cost to employers run as high as $30 billion and more each year.
Despite the growing need for caregivers, fewer companies today allow workers to take paid time off during the workday to attend to family or personal needs compared to five years ago, according to a recent Society for Human Resource Management survey. What’s more, there appears to be little momentum among many employers to provide leave to tend to loved ones.
The Path Forward
Still, there have been some high-profile examples of trailblazers that have pointed the way ahead. Professional services firm Deloitte made headlines last year when it unveiled its plan, offering employees up to 16 weeks of paid time off per year to look after a parent or family member as well as for the birth or adoption of a child.
And earlier this year, Facebook launched a new policy that allows employees to take up to six weeks of paid leave to care for a sick relative and an additional 20 days of paid bereavement leave.
AARP also introduced a program under which its full- and part-time employees may request up to two regularly scheduled workweeks of paid time off per calendar year to assist a family member who is ill or needs physical or medical assistance.
The program is providing welcome relief for many workers. In just the first eight months, approximately 20 percent of the AARP workforce logged nearly 14,000 hours of caregiving leave. Workers of all ages have used the program, with the majority over the age of 50.
AARP employee John Griffin’s story is typical of the situation faced by many of today’s workers. “I had heard of the [AARP leave] program but didn’t think much about it until the day the call came from my sister saying our father had taken a dramatic turn for the worse in his battle with heart disease and that I needed to basically drop everything, fly down to Florida, and take care of determining what type of care
Dad was going to need and arrange for it,” says Griffin, 52. “It sure was a relief to find out that because of AARP’s Caregiving Leave program, I would have no worries job-wise and be free to take the time I needed to set Dad up with the hospice care that we decided would be best for him.”
Employers can find helpful information in Determining the Return on Investment: Supportive Policies for Employee Caregivers, a report from AARP and the Respect a Caregiver’s Time Coalition. It found that there is great interest—particularly among working women—in having more workplace flexibility and support. The report also supports a business case for helping people juggle the conflicting demands of the workplace and families.
Millions of American workers have a fundamental obligation to care for aging loved ones, but employers can’t afford to sit back and wait for new laws to be passed. They need to take the lead on paid caregiver leave. It’s a benefit they can’t afford not to offer. It’s also the right thing to do.
Scott Frisch is executive vice president and chief operating officer at AARP in Washington, D.C.
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