Rick Hansen was a state employee some years ago whose good health had allowed him to accrue a number of unused “sick days.” But when he wanted to use that time to take his ailing mother to the doctor, his request was denied. “Sick time” was for his own medical needs or those of his dependent children — no one else, he was told.
As state Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, he set out to change that response. The bill he sponsored to expand the use of accrued sick time for family care became law on Aug. 1. Accrued “sick days” provided by a Minnesota employer of 20 or more workers can now be used to care for the medical needs of a child of any age or a spouse, sibling, parent, grandparent or stepparent.
Hansen’s first stab at expanding the use of sick days for family caregiving met with then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto in 2009, he said last week. It took four years to revive the bill. When he did, he was pleased to find that support for the notion had crossed the partisan aisle sufficiently to win 99 of 134 votes in the House and an ample majority in the Senate.
We take that change as recognition that an economy that depends on both men and women to work outside the home also has to allow those workers a reasonable opportunity to meet their family obligations. Two-earner families have been the American norm for more than four decades. But too many employment practices are still grounded in a tacit assumption that employees’ families include a nonworking adult who can relieve paid workers of caregiving responsibilities. That outdated thinking must end.
It’s also the latest evidence of the influence of the large baby boomer generation on the institutions they touch, including employment. State sick leave law was amended to allow for the care of dependent children two decades ago, when employed boomer parents were struggling to care for sick young children.
Many in that same generational cohort are today in their late 50s and early 60s, and are helping elderly parents cope with increasing frailty. The extent of that obligation was analyzed in a recent AARP report, “Keeping Up with the Times: Supporting Family Caregivers with Workplace Leave Policies.” It found that nearly two-thirds of workers between ages 45 and 74 have caregiving responsibilities for an adult relative, and that nearly half of the nation’s employees who took time off from work to care for an elderly relative lost income in doing so.
That suggests that without more workplace support for caregiving, the extent of the help that younger family members can provide their elders is limited. When families can’t step in, caregiving costs can fall on taxpayers. That reality, combined with the growth in the elderly population that’s forecast for the next three decades, ought to make an impression on employers who want to keep tax burdens in check.
While Minnesota’s new sick leave requirement is a step in the right direction, it’s a modest one. According to Hansen, it will affect only about a third of the state’s employees, those whose employers make a distinction between sick leave, vacations and holidays. Many of the state’s employers now combine and cap those options as “paid time off.” Those employers will be unaffected by this change.
Further, the new state law doesn’t require more employers to offer paid sick leave. That benefit is standard in the rest of the industrialized world. It warrants renewed consideration in this country as evidence mounts that keeping people in the workforce past the traditional retirement age brings advantages to both workers and the economy.
As AARP, the state’s largest senior lobby, hailed the change in sick leave that went into effect last week, Hansen acknowledged its limitations. But he said he has received thanks from a number of Minnesotans who say that for them and their families, the change makes a big difference. That response should lead lawmakers and employers to ask what more can be done so that work and family life are not an “either/or” proposition. This hardworking, family-loving state should lead the nation in “both/and” workplace policies.