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Don’t quit. Take leave under FMLA.

It was early January 2021. The first COVID-19 vaccine had been approved by the FDA, but it was not yet widely available. Non-essential workers like me were still plodding away at home when I reached out to Jude in Human Resources in early. Following my near catastrophic breakdown several days prior, my manager had suggested that I not quit my job, but rather take time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to deal with the mounting challenges, physical and emotional, of caring for Robert. 

A call with Human Resources

I was hunkered down in my usual corner of the living room couch. My feet were perched on a purloined dining chair and I sat with coffee at my elbow for my Skype call with Jude in Human Resources. Jude is a persistently upbeat, positive person. At every greeting, he opens with a smile that crinkles his face all the way up to his bright, blue eyes.

We have known each other for over a decade. Jude is an old style Human Resources manager focused on making employees happy and healthy in their professional roles. He eschews some of the more cynical aspects of modern HR practices. (Modern practices seem principally focused on covering the company’s collective ass, not advocating for and assisting employees. But I digress.)

After I explained my situation to Jude, he also recommended that I take time off under FMLA. He shared that the State of California also offers Paid Family Leave (PFL) of up to eight weeks. Employees qualify to take leave to bond with a new, adopted or foster child, to manage the affairs of an active military member who has been called to duty, or to care for a family member with a serious illness. And beyond monies paid by the state, I could supplement my leave pay with the remaining balance of accrued vacation. In all, I could be paid a percentage of my monthly income for the full 12 weeks of my leave. 

Paid Family Leave. Who gets it?

California is among a handful of states that offer PFL. It’s quite remarkable that more states don’t offer this benefit. As a relatively high paid worker, I could have managed my leave without pay. But such is not the case for most workers. Many fulltime employees are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Taking leave might be the right thing to do, but it may not be an economically viable option. After all, the rent must still be paid, groceries must still be purchased, and the car still needs gas.

Perhaps even more compelling (and not in a good way) is the specter of people who must retire to care for their loved one. A MetLife study estimated that the amount of lost wages and reductions in Social Security and pension benefits totaled $303,880 for the typical caregiver age 50 or older who left the workforce early. Not only do we hobble caregivers with lost wages and lost social connections, we make them pay for the rest of their lives

We don’t take care of each other

This isn’t simply the findings of an insurance companyrevising actuarial tables. Even the principal advisor to the US Department of Health and Human Services notes in their 2017 report “The financial impact of caregiving can also be significant. The 2014 Alzheimer’s Association survey found that 15 percent of caregivers had to take a leave of absence from their jobs, 13 percent went from full-time to part-time work, and 9 percent had to quit their jobs. The same survey found that many caregivers reduced the amount of money they saved, used money from their own retirement accounts, and decreased spending on their children’s education to fund care for the person with dementia.” 

Is this what we want as a society? To rob “young Peter” to pay for Paul when Peter is our future? I get angry just writing about it. (I’ll write more exhaustively about the challenges and expense of long term care options in an upcoming story.)

A 12-week break

But again, I digress. Jude and I concluded our call. I sat for a few moments staring off into space. I would formally apply for leave to begin in mid-January to carry me through mid-April. Perhaps my path forward with Robert would be clear by then. Perhaps. My stomach was still doing cartwheels as it had been since my mini-meltdown a few days earlier.

I wish I could say that I just needed a little reprieve, that a break would make us whole again. Nope. Such is not generally the case with a terminal illness. But I would go on to learn a lot about myself, about Robert’s essential nature, and what it means to be human. That’s worth something.

To be continued…

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