DC Set to Make Family Caregiving More Affordable

January 2, 2017

Followers may have noticed that I’ve taken a break from blogging. The rapid recovery I was experiencing after my fall in late November took a 180 degree turn such that I could barely sit due to the pain, let alone concentrate on policy issues.

Ultimately, I wound up back in a rehab facility and have only recently returned home. As I lay in bed there and now sit propped up in a pillow-cushioned chair, I find my thoughts riveted on our healthcare system.

One hardly needs fractured bones to worry about the fate of many millions of people who may no longer have affordable health insurance. I’ll have more to say about this.

But, for the time being, an insight that reaches beyond healthcare policy per se.

During both my brief stays in rehab, I raised concerns about how I would cope alone when deemed mobile enough to return home. The therapists, caseworkers and on-the-scene physician invariably responded with “Don’t you have family?”

Yes, as I suppose most patients do. But that doesn’t mean we have family members who can take on responsibilities for helping us with what the professionals call activities of daily living, e.g. bathing, dressing, cooking, housekeeping.

Lots of reasons that family members can’t become our primary caregivers. They may, for example, live so far away that they’d have to temporarily relocate. They may have children who need their daily care. They themselves may have health problems that limit what they can do.

Not much policymakers can do about these. But they can address one common barrier—potential lost wages or even jobs.

As you probably know, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act protects some workers from the latter. But it covers only about 60% of workers.

Laws in eleven states and the District of Columbia expand eligibility in various ways. But only five states and the District require employers to directly or indirectly compensate workers for any of the wages they lose when they take time off because of illness.

A handful of local governments have more expansive paid sick leave mandates than the state they’re in. But virtually all these laws exclude workers employed by small businesses—in some cases, very small, in others not.

The District also expressly excludes whole categories of workers, including all restaurant wait staff and bartenders who receive the subminimum tip credit wage.

In short, this safety net is a patchwork of protections that force hard, consequential choices between working for pay and caring for sick or disabled family members.

The District, however, is set to join the four states that enable workers to take time off for illness or other compelling reasons without forfeiting the income they need.

The DC Council recently approved a bill that would replace all but 10% of the wages that lower-income workers lose when they take time off to care for family members—not only those who are sick or disabled, but newborns and newly-adopted children.

It would also effectively supersede the paid sick leave exemption for most tip credit workers. And it would cover, at a lower replacement rate, all high-paid workers, as Rachel Sadon at DCist explains.

The bill caps the amount of paid leave workers can claim for each of the specified reasons, allowing up to eight weeks to care for their babies and/or develop a trusting relationship with a newly-adopted child.

Care for the likes of me would be capped at six weeks—a maximum the Council whittled down to add two weeks of personal medical care.

The bill adopts the paid leave model that California pioneered. Instead of requiring employers to pay their workers when they take time off for authorized reasons, it imposes a tiny payroll tax—0.62%.

The funds would go into a pool and then to workers entitled to replacement wages. So all District employers would collectively pay time off for all people who work in the District, except government employees.

The bill is the latest iteration of a proposal Councilmembers have worked on since 2015. It’s proved very controversial—and still is. “This [the final vote] is the battle, not the war, says a member of the DC Chamber of Commerce board.

The Mayor seems inclined to let the bill become law without her signature, thus indicating her disapproval without triggering a vote to override a veto. She clearly views the legislation as unfinished business, predicting the Council will have to revisit it before it becomes effective.

Translating the bill into a viable system would prove challenging, even if the administration wanted to make it work. One can only hope that it sets aside its reservations or comes up with a better solution.

I don’t know enough to know whether there is one. What I do know is that our healthcare system assumes a family caregiving role that our labor laws don’t accommodate.

The lack of paid time off leaves sick and disabled people vulnerable. My summary here indicates other compelling needs that may get short shrift.

But they often don’t because workers (mostly women) quit their jobs or shift to part-time work so they can fulfill family responsibilities.

This puts them at a disadvantage when they’re ready to return to the workforce or full-time employment. And it’s likely to disadvantage them when they’re ready to retire because the years when they earned nothing or very little often become part of the base for calculating Social Security benefits.

In the meantime, families whose breadwinners sacrifice to provide care have to make do with less or no earned income. This is a problem for all working families, but especially those dependent on a low-wage worker.

It’s also a problem for state and local governments because they must make do with less tax revenues and increased needs for safety net benefits.

Ideally, we would have a nationwide paid sick and family leave law. That’s obviously not in the cards during the next four years. So here’s another case where states and the District must do for their residents what Congress and the President won’t do for all Americans.



Everyone Needs Time Off From Work, But Millions Can’t Take It

August 1, 2016

I’m preoccupied with time off from work — why I need it, why we all do, why so many can’t take it and what policymakers can do about that.

One of the privileges of retirement is that you can take time off from whatever you’ve chosen to fill your days with and still have as much income as if you’d taken no break.

This assumes you don’t need to earn more because you got paid enough, steadily enough to live on Social Security benefits, plus your savings when you choose not to work anymore — or, as in my case, when the rewards of the work you choose don’t pay bills.

I’ve needed more time off, if you can call it that, since my husband died, partly to deal with basic life maintenance tasks he used to handle and partly to manage more consequential matters.

But the need for time off is hardly restricted to people who’ve experienced a life-changing event. My late sister Marjorie used to take what she called well days — paid time off to tackle personal business so that the mounting pressures didn’t trigger anxieties, sleeplessness and the like that would sap her resistance to illness.

Very few workers have such accommodating bosses, of course. Many can’t even take time off and still get their regular paychecks if they’re actually sick.

About 36% of private-sector workers have no paid sick leave benefit, the Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported. And nearly 60% with service-related jobs don’t. (Remember this next time a wait server hovers over your shoulder.)

Workers, as a whole, fare worse when they need time off to care for a sick family member, a newborn or themselves when they’re expecting. Only 11% of those in the private sector can rely on formal employer policies, though another 28% say they could take it. Not that they tried, mind you.

Needless to say, I hope, fewer low-wage workers have access to any paid leave than others. And they, of course, can least afford to forfeit pay.

Perhaps not needless to say, even now, is that only about 60% of all workers can take unpaid leave for medical or compelling family reasons with any assurance they’ll have jobs to come back to.

They’re workers covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Similar laws in some states may push the percent up a bit. No data to tell us, so far as I know. But we can, I think, assume that at least a quarter of private-sector workers have no legal right to time off when they’re sick, pregnant or must care for a family member.

The rest don’t qualify because their employer doesn’t have enough other workers on the payroll or because they haven’t worked for the employer long enough. Others because they haven’t recently put in as many hours as the laws require.

FMLA itself is singularly restrictive on workforce size, letting even large employers do as they wish if they have fewer than 50 workers at a given site or within 75 miles of it.

Even workers at sites that meet this standard have no legal right to the unpaid leave unless they’ve worked for the employer for at least a year and for at least 1,250 hours, i.e., more than half time.

We see similar, though not identical restrictions in states’ laws. A lot of variation, but no state requires all employers to let all their workers take time off for an urgent personal health or family-related reason.

Workers entitled to the leave time often can’t take it because they can’t afford to lose pay. But sometimes they’ve no choice. They’ve broken a leg and can’t even hobble to the bus stop, for example.

Reverting to my own experience, illness or other physical incapacity is only one reason people can’t put in the hours they’re scheduled for. They may need to be home, as I recently did, to deal with technicians so as to get the air conditioner chilling again — and (coincidentally) the refrigerator chilling the food.

Paid vacation leave would, in theory, prevent wage loss in such cases. But workers whose employers provide it must often schedule it in advance. And most of the lowest-paid in the private sector have none. This has nothing to do with restrictions in existing laws.

No law requires private-sector employers in America to provide any worker with vacation leave — liberally understood as leave for any reason not covered by FMLA or its state equivalents.

The realities of the labor market generally constrain employers to include a paid vacation leave benefit in the package they offer workers with high-level, in-demand skills. Not, however, those they can hire — and feel they can readily replace — by offering only a low wage.

Bernie Sanders introduced a paid vacation bill when he was campaigning for the Presidential nomination. An idea whose time hasn’t come yet. Paid medical and family leave is a whole other story.

Worker and family advocates have long pressed for it at both federal and state levels. Clinton has embraced it, though not apparently the way pending House and Senate bills would pay for it. It’s a plank in the Democratic party platform, of course.

Columnists left and right understood Ivanka Trump to say her dad would support paid leave when she introduced him at the Republican convention. Not explicitly. Just as well, since he’s suggested it would make our country less competitive.

Regardless of who moves into the White House, a paid sick and family leave bill will have a tough time getting through the next Congress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan could have supported an earlier version of the pending paid leave bill. He instead signed on to one that would let (or force) workers to substitute time off for overtime pay — an old, bad tradeoff.

It’s also Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “family friendly” alternative to a paid leave guarantee. Democrats would need to gain 14 Senate seats to pass a paid leave bill there. They surely won’t have enough in the House anyway.

So we may see more states decide they shouldn’t wait for a federal law, just as we’ve seen them do with other worker and family friendly measures, e.g., minimum wage increases, controls on constantly shifting schedules.

Best hope for now, I think, though I’d like to be wrong.

What Could Cut the Poverty Rate Right Now

February 20, 2014

A nice, short video from the Half in Ten campaign tells us five things we can do to cut poverty today. They’re actually four things Congress can do — and one that it shouldn’t.

They’re all modest, middle-of-the-road proposals, reflecting both pending legislation and priorities identified in the President’s latest State of the Union address. That alone should tell you that they won’t have an easy time getting through Congress, though polls indicate bipartisan support from voters.

Here they are, with supporting details from the video and others I’ve added.

Create Jobs. What Half in Ten has in mind here are investments in renewable energy, other “growth sectors” and infrastructure projects, e.g., repairing our pot-holed roads and crumbling bridges, improving public transport.

We’re still 7.7 million jobs shy of the number needed to bring the unemployment rate down to its pre-recession level — 600,000 fewer than when the video was created, but still a daunting number. The recommended investments would help close the gap — as might the next thing, according to many economists.

Raise the Minimum Wage. In other words, Congress should pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which has been awaiting a vote for about a year and a half now.

As I’ve written before, the bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016 and then link it to a commonly-used consumer price index so that it wouldn’t again lose purchasing power due to inflation.

The bill would also, over a longer period of time, raise the federal tip credit wage — now and since 1991 stuck at $2.13 an hour — to 70% of the regular minimum wage and then link it to preserve this ratio.

In the late 1960s, Half in Ten says, the minimum wage was enough to lift a family of three out of poverty. A full-time, year round job at the federal minimum wage now pays less than the federal poverty line for a two-person family.

Expand Access to High-Quality Pre-K and Childcare. This, as you probably know, is a high priority for the President and a broad spectrum of advocacy organizations. They’re focused especially on children in low-income families, more than half of whom start school at a disadvantage — and never catch up.

A bill reflecting the Obama administration’s proposal — the Strong Start for America’s Children Act — would make pre-K available for more low-income four-year-olds and, at the same time, establish quality standards. It also seeks to raise quality in programs for younger kids.

The Half in Ten video, however, focuses on the immediate pocketbook issue. Low-income families, it says, spend, on average, 40% of their income on childcare. More money for publicly-funded programs and/or subsidies to help pay the rates other programs charge would obviously leave more leftover for other needs.

Make the Workplace Family Friendly. Three priorities here. One is mandatory paid sick leave for the more than 40% of private-sector workers whose employers don’t see fit to grant it voluntarily. The percent in roughly double for low-wage workers, who can least afford to take unpaid leave.

A second priority is paid family leave so that workers can take time off for a broader range of compelling reasons, e.g., childbirth, a sick family member in need of care. Only 212% of workers have this benefit now.

And of the 59% who have an unpaid family leave guarantee under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, about two million need, but can’t afford to take it, according to a recent survey.

A bill now pending in Congress would take care of both these issues — and without adding a penny to the federal debt, says one of the cosponsors.

The third priority is legislation to further strengthen the Equal Pay Act. Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Various reasons for this, but an estimated quarter to a third of the gap may reflect discrimination.

Don’t Make Poverty Worse. In other words, Congress is to refrain from further cuts to programs that provide cash or near-cash benefits to people in need.

Half in Ten flags SNAP (the food stamp program), which, as you know, was recently cut. It lifted nearly five million people above the poverty threshold in 2012, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.

Also flagged are unemployment insurance benefits, which lifted more than 2.4 million above the poverty threshold.

So Congress will surely make poverty worse if it doesn’t renew the recently-expired Emergency Unemployment Compensation program — or does, but trims it back again. The former seems more likely than the latter, unless Republicans rethink their position.

This is, in a way, a sad agenda because it’s largely based on pending legislation, which is largely based on what stands at least a remove chance of passing in this highly-divided, deficit-obsessed Congress. Sad also because chances seem pretty remote for much of it.

But one never can tell. So the thing we can do right now is to weigh in with our elected representatives on these five things — unless, of course, we’re disenfranchised District of Columbia residents. Sigh.