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June 7, 2013

Why Paid Leave Is an LGBT Aging Issue

Today's post is from Jared Make, Staff Attorney at A Better Balance, an organization that promotes equality and expands choices for men and women at all income levels so they may care for their families without sacrificing their economic security. You can contact Jared at jmake@abetterbalance.org.

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When illness strikes, many American workers learn that their employers provide little or no paid leave. LGBT workers often face an additional obstacle when loved ones are sick, because their employers may not recognize their families. The widespread lack of LGBT-inclusive paid leave has significant consequences for workers, their loved ones, and the health of our communities. Although it may not be apparent at first glance, paid leave laws are especially critical to the health and economic security of LGBT elders—whether or not they’re in the labor force.

A significant percentage of American workers, including a growing number of LGBT elders, receive no paid leave for personal or family health issues. Almost 90% of private sector workers receive no paid family leave to care for a seriously ill loved one, and nearly 40% of private sector workers lack even a single paid sick day. Many of these workers are LGBT older adults. The population of LGBT elders in the United States is growing at a substantial rate, and LGBT Americans are staying in the labor force for longer periods of time. In a 2009 survey of LGBT Americans between the ages of 45 and 64, almost half of all respondents said they did not expect to retire until after the age of 70.

If LGBT elders in the labor force cannot take time off to receive medical care or recover from illness, their health and well-being are jeopardized. As highlighted by SAGE, LGBT elders face striking health disparities: LGBT older adults have an increased risk for certain cancers, a greater likelihood of delaying medical care, and higher rates of chronic mental and physical health conditions, including HIV/AIDS. Given these health disparities, it is crucial that LGBT elders are able to take off from work to receive medical attention or care for a sick loved one.

LGBT-inclusive paid leave laws will keep LGBT elders more attached to their jobs and financially stable. Far too many LGBT workers are fired for calling out sick or caring for a sick family member. The loss of a job can be financially devastating to LGBT elders, who have a higher than average risk of poverty. For example, lesbian couples age 65 and older are twice as likely to be poor as married, different-sex couples in the same age group. And only 21% of LGBT baby boomers between the ages of 45 and 64 report that they have met or are “on track” to meet their goals for retirement savings. Against this backdrop of economic insecurity, LGBT elders in the labor force cannot afford to choose between their health—or a loved one’s health—and a job.

Without access to paid leave, many workers are unable to take off from work to care for ill or aging loved ones. A significant percentage of LGBT elders need occasional or ongoing care from loved ones, or may need such care in the future. LGBT-inclusive paid leave laws can provide an essential benefit to LGBT elders by making it easier and less risky for their employed loved ones to provide care.

Paid sick time laws also have important public health benefits for all LGBT elders. When sick workers—such as food preparers, retail workers, and domestic workers—are unable to stay home, they increase the public spread of illness. The spread of contagions in the community creates a health risk to older adults, who face a higher risk of complications from influenza and other communicable illnesses. Therefore, paid leave laws improve the health of all LGBT elders by minimizing unnecessary exposure to germs.

Paid leave laws provide an opportunity to expand legal recognition of same-sex couples, who are often excluded from employer policies and labor laws. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—the only federal law that provides unpaid leave to workers who need time off to care for a seriously ill family member or recover from a serious health condition—is a prime example. Due to the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act and the FMLA’s limited definition of family, LGBT workers cannot take FMLA leave to care for a seriously ill same-sex spouse or partner. Furthermore, the FMLA has major shortcomings that impact all Americans; the law’s eligibility requirements exclude more than 40% of American workers from FMLA coverage, and many workers who are eligible—especially low-wage workers—cannot afford to take unpaid time off work.

In addition to protecting same-sex couples, paid leave laws can expand legal recognition to diverse family structures. LGBT elders who need care often rely on a support network of close friends, who are commonly known as “chosen family members” or “families of choice.” In a nationwide survey, 53% of LGBT adults between the ages of 45 and 64 said that they would rely on close friends in an emergency, compared to 25% of all adults in this age group. Yet employers often deny leave to care for chosen family members, and the FMLA only covers different-sex spouses, children, and parents. Therefore, state and local paid leave laws provide an important opportunity to create broad and LGBT-inclusive definitions of family.

Fortunately, momentum is building for paid leave laws. California and New Jersey have family leave insurance programs that provide paid leave to care for a seriously ill loved one or bond with a new child. Within the next month, the New York City Council will finalize a paid sick time law and join San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; and Connecticut in guaranteeing that workers can earn paid sick time for personal or family needs. Although all of these paid leave laws recognize same-sex couples and their children, coverage of chosen family members is relatively limited. As new cities and states consider paid leave legislation, more work is needed to draw attention to the importance of broad family definitions. To raise awareness about families of choice and ensure that LGBT aging issues are not overlooked in the fight for paid leave, it is critical that LGBT elders join this growing movement.

To learn more about the paid leave movement and laws described above, see A Better Balance’s new report, “Time for a Change: The Case for LGBT-Inclusive Workplace Leave Laws and Nondiscrimination Protections.”

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