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In our opinion: Compassionate family leave policies don't have to get in the way of business

Utah as a whole is continuing to grow older, and state administrators say a troubling trend has accompanied the demographic shift.
The need for more liberal family leave policies — which would benefit both workers and their employers — will only grow as the baby-boomer generation ages.
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A growing percentage of American workers are facing the stressful consequences of trying to balance the obligations of their jobs with the need to take time off to care for aging or ailing loved ones.

The need for stronger family leave policies — which would benefit both workers and their employers — will only grow as the baby-boomer generation ages.

As the baby-boom generation continues to age, pressures are building for more generous family leave policies for those who need to care for elderly loved ones. Evidence suggests such a thing would help both employers and their workers, but it would come with costs. A serious discussion and debate about this needs to happen.

One in six workers now provide regular care for a disabled or elderly loved one, and more than a fourth of them spend more than 21 hours a week giving care. Many are forced into a stressful cycle of worrying about whether they are sacrificing work demands over family obligations, or vice versa. It’s a situation that also frustrates employers who see workers frequently absent and less able to fully engage in the tasks of the job.

The need for adequate leave policies in the workplace has resulted in legislation in at least seven states. A law recently passed in Connecticut, for example, requires employers to grant up to 12 paid weeks a year for family or medical leave. Several measures before Congress would enact similar federal policies, with the question of how they will be paid for among the key areas of debate. Some, like in the case of Connecticut, would fund leave periods via a payroll tax, while others would allow workers to dip early into Social Security benefits to make up for lost salary, with the expectation that they would retire a little later.

Both approaches are worthy of consideration. Money from any source spent to accommodate long-term paid leave would be recouped by savings from a reduction on reliance on emergency care services, which come into play when a person’s health needs go unattended. It’s the same principle behind policies many companies have created to encourage employees to take better care of their health.

In Utah, where there is strong cultural disposition toward chipping in to help loved ones, the problem is increasingly pronounced, as reported recently in The Deseret News. And, as a result of record low levels of unemployment, Utah companies feel considerable pressure trying to keep their operations properly staffed while allowing for compassionate leave policies.

It’s an area in which surveys show a majority of Americans favor government intervention, even as many employers, large and small, have on their own adopted more generous leave policies. In the long run, standardization across all fields of employment where feasible, as well as across state lines, would be beneficial for all parties.

There are, of course, counterarguments, including claims that unscrupulous employees might take advantage of leave options, or that granting one class of employee extended time off with pay is unfair to those who only take time off for vacation. But there are a large number of workers who daily confront the misery of choosing to give aid to a loved one at the expense of upsetting the boss.

The Deseret News-sponsored American Family Survey, now in its fifth year, will dive into this important issue this year and will include in-depth reports on the four proposals expected to be aired in Congress, as well as the potential consequences of inaction.

Consistent and compassionate leave policies will ease distress, and should make it easier for companies to adjust staffing demands to accommodate a human need that shouldn’t be seen as averse to the interests of a productive business.