What former Gov. Al Quie said a few days after his wife of 67 years, Gretchen Hansen Quie, died last fall kept popping into mind last week as I watched a state Senate panel wrestle with a trending topic this election year — caregiving.
Please don’t feel sorry for him for spending the better part of 10 years caring for Gretchen as she endured the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, Quie told me. He felt blessed to be able to do it.
“Caregiving is a spiritual discipline,” he said. When the love someone has for you is great, he continued, that love compels you to respond when that person is in need. Your own love grows as you do. “It’s so meaningful. It stimulates you,” he said. Taking care of his ailing wife gave the lifelong Lutheran a deeper appreciation of the Christian notion that Christ’s great love for humankind is the force that compels believers to show kindness toward others.
Or, in more secular terms: Caring for a sick loved one offers a lesson in love and humanity — one not to be missed.
That might be my favorite among the reasons I’ve heard for politicians to be promoting paid family leave policies. Too many people are missing out on one of life’s great love-enlarging experiences because they can’t get enough time off work to help ailing family members.
But for those who prefer less ethereal arguments for public-policy changes, the new Minnesotans for Paid Family Leave coalition has facts and figures, too: Some 600,000 people in Minnesota this year will be responsible for caring in some manner for an adult 18 years of age or older. If taxpayers had to pick up the tab for the services they provide, the state budget would have to grow by $8 billion.
Keeping that burden off taxpayers’ shoulders will only become more important in years ahead. By 2040, the number of Minnesotans over age 85 (an age at which care needs typically increase) will more than double.
But caregivers are struggling to carry that load alone. Mary Jo George of AARP said the average American caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who works full time but also spends nearly 20 hours per week providing unpaid care, often for her mother, often for five years. Caregivers lose out financially, an AARP study found — $304,000 on average over their lifetimes due to unpaid leaves, shorter work hours, early retirements and the toll caregiving takes on their own health.
Some employers — mostly large ones — have responded admirably with paid-leave policies. But most small employers haven’t, and say they can’t.
Enter state Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, with an idea that seems promising. Her bill would create a state-administered program akin to unemployment insurance. Employers and employees at midsize and larger firms would both pay a small payroll tax, making the workers eligible for partial wage replacement should they require a leave of absence. Leaves of up to 12 weeks per 52-week period would be compensated on a sliding scale, with low-income workers seeing the largest share of wage replacement.
Leaves would be available for bonding with a new baby or caring for a sick family member — but, as of last week, not for the sake of one’s own health. The bill’s more costly medical leave component was dropped in the face of heavy opposition from the business community.
Business was not much mollified by the change. Cam Winton of the state Chamber of Commerce said Sieben’s approach is still too inflexible, too generous and too dependent on a government-built IT system (think MNsure, he said).
That opposition likely dooms the bill in the Republican-controlled House. But if it stalls this year, that won’t be the end of it. There’s ample evidence that Americans keenly feel caregivers’ plight and want better end-of-life experiences for their loved ones. (For instance: A nonfiction book that’s surpassing 60 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List is “Being Mortal” by surgeon Atul Gawande, which argues for end-of-life reform.) Politicians are bound to respond.
Alexa Horwart of the religious coalition ISAIAH said advocates are preparing to take the issue of paid family leave into the fall campaign. Phone banks soliciting support have already begun, she said, and phoners are finding deep interest. People are eager to tell their own stories about the distress they’ve experienced when work and family obligations clashed.
At Wednesday’s hearing, I met Jessica Rohloff of Willmar. She described six years of caring for her grandmother, an Alzheimer’s victim whose dementia led to two broken legs. With no opportunity for paid leave, Rohloff left a job she loved and struggled financially thereafter. At age 42, her chances of regaining the career ground she lost are limited. A paid leave “would have made a huge difference,” she said.
Rohloff told legislators about friends whose 17-year-old son was battling brain cancer. They felt torn each day by their desire to be with him and the need to keep their jobs, she said.
The next day, I had a note from Rohloff. The boy with brain cancer had died two hours before she testified, she reported. His parents were both with him at home when he died. That’s a small but significant solace — Al Quie would say a blessing — that no one should be denied.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.