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This Labor Day, let’s finally acknowledge caregiving as work

Previous To honor Labor Day, Congress must keep front-line workers on the job

This Labor Day, I am thinking about the many caregivers who came into my family’s life earlier this year, when my father entered home-based hospice care. During his final weeks of life, he was surrounded by immensely talented and generous caregivers who were there 24/7.

On Labor Day, when many workers take a well-deserved break, there is one form of work that can’t go on pause, even for a day. That’s caregiving – whether for children, the elderly or people with disabilities. And yet, many of our nation’s labor policies do not recognize caregiving as work. And most of our nation’s caregivers are struggling to make ends meet.

It shouldn’t be this way. It’s time to acknowledge the vital nature of caregivers’ work through fair wages, benefits and the right to join together for a collective voice on the job. And it’s time to enact policies that truly support working families who are juggling the demands of caregiving and our jobs.

The need is urgent. The vast majority of workers in America lack access to paid sick leave and even fewer have access to paid family leave. Paid leave programs will be a necessary component of our national labor policy if we are to successfully rebuild the American economy post-pandemic. Paid leave policies have proven to increase employee retention and productivity, allowing small businesses to successfully compete with larger businesses.

It has been almost 30 years since the historic Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed, providing most workers 10 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child or sick family member. Yet we have made woefully little progress toward a national law requiring paid leave. As has often been the case, when the federal government stalls, states show the way forward. Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid family and medical leave programs. But now more than ever, all workers need paid leave.

Working families also desperately need access to affordable, quality child care. That basic truth has only been magnified by the pandemic, with parents struggling to balance child care against new work demands, whether tackling endless overtime or adapting to working from home.  

Child care workers, particular home-based providers, have gone to heroic lengths to meet families’ needs during the coronavirus crisis. In California, the majority of home-based providers stayed open as the pandemic raged, even as schools and 40% of stand-alone day care centers closed. In many instances, they provide care for the children of nurses, firefighters and security guards, allowing them to remain on the job.

That is one of the many reasons to celebrate the recent Child Care Providers United victory in California. More than 40,000 home-based providers demanded their right to organize and then voted to form a union. They are now poised to negotiate for fair compensation and access to quality child care for working families statewide. Like AFSCME members everywhere, these child care providers are using their collective power to advocate for improvements to their own lives, while also enhancing the quality of services they provide to the public.   

Now, we need a comprehensive national policy that recognizes and supports the essential nature of this work. And fortunately, Joe Biden agrees. He recently unveiled a proposal to provide universal pre-kindergarten, fund the construction of new child care facilities and offer tax credits and grants to pay caregivers who provide services to children and the elderly.

This is a bold plan that recognizes caregiving as both a human need and an economic engine. Estimates are that it would lead to 5 million new jobs and would immediately increase women’s labor force participation.

I have met many amazing caregivers over the years, most of them through my work with AFSCME but most recently in my own parents’ home. I am grateful for the passion and patience each one of them brings to the job. They consistently view what they do as a calling. But let’s be clear: Caregiving is work that we must treat as valued and vital to our economy. On November 3, we can take a giant step toward doing exactly that.

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