Leilani Hodnett lives in South L.A. with her sister, 59-year-old Yolanda Davenport, who was paralyzed from a stroke two years ago.
Hodnett, 58, cares for her sister and works full-time as an administrative assistant at the Compton Unified School District. It’s a balance that has left her feeling stretched thin, with few options. Over the past six months, since her sister moved from Washington state to live with her in L.A., Hodnett has spent the bulk of her savings, and much of her disposable income tending to her sister’s many medical needs.
It’s difficult work, but something Hodnett wants to do for her family member. “She can’t do anything but sit there,” Hodnett said,“so I try to make her feel happy and welcome.”
What many California seniors and older adults, such as Hodnett, don’t realize is that California offers a respite for them when their parents or other family members become ill. The state was the first and is still only one of a three states in the country to offer paid leave for workers to care for ill family members, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
California Paid Family Leave provides up to six weeks off and 55 percent pay for employees to care for a seriously ill family member, including a child, parent, grandparent, sibling or spouse. The leave can also be used to bond with a new child, and family members are more likely to use the benefit for this use. In some cases, California workers say they don’t realize that the leave can also be used to care for older family members, or they do not feel that their workplace will accommodate a leave of absence for that reason, despite the law.
A surprisingly low number of caregivers, including Hodnett, take advantage of the temporary relief, which is automatically deducted from employees’ paychecks.
‘Can’t lose a day of work’
California had 4.4 million unpaid family caregivers who work another job full-time in 2016, according to Blanca E. Castro, the Director of Advocacy at AARP California. These caregivers spend 20 hours on average taking care of someone who needs assistance doing daily activities, such as food shopping, visiting the doctor or picking up medications, according to the AARP.
But according to a 2015 report from the state Employment Development Department, in the first 10 years that the Family Leave Policy was in place (from 2004-14) only 10 percent of eligible workers took leave to care for an ill family member, compared with 90 percent who took the time to bond with a child.
“It’s heartbreaking that so many people put their family’s lives in precarious situations because they can’t lose a day of work,” said Jenya Cassidy, director of the advocacy group California Work & Family Coalition.
California’s Employee Development Department does not compile data on seniors who are caregivers, but AARP and other groups that support them say there are many reasons—cultural, emotional and educational—for the lack of participation in the state leave program. The main one is a general lack of awareness. EDD officials say they are addressing that through a new public education and marketing campaign.
Age Discrimination Plays a Role
But even if seniors know about the benefit, many reject it because they can’t afford to live on about half of their income. Another reason is the concern that their jobs would be in jeopardy if co-workers filled the void in their absence.
Donna Benton, the Director of USC’s Family Caregiver Support Center, said another factor for employers is advanced notice. With maternity leave, employers may have six months to anticipate how a gap in personnel is going to impact their business. Caregiver leave requests, meanwhile, are often urgent.
“If it’s a chronic condition, as opposed to a baby, their work may not be as supportive,” said Benton, “and older adults are already at risk for being discriminated against in the workplace.”
For seniors of color, or those who are low-income, those risks are magnified, according to a USC study. African-American and Latino caregivers have a median household income of less than $40,000, far lower than whites or Asian-Americans, on average, which can make the financial strain of leaving work even for a short time more difficult.
Californians who are African American and Latino also disproportionately work in jobs that have less flexibility and benefits, Benton said.
Castro of AARP said that in the Latino community, often the idea of getting compensated to take care of loved ones is jarring.
“In the Hispanic community, they don’t have a term for caregivers. It’s ‘family’,” said Castro. “It’s just what you do.”
Some Opt to Retire Early
Family is something that Hodnett, who is African-American, dedicates herself to, daily. She said she’s spent as much as $1,000 a week out of her paycheck from the school district taking care of her sister—changing her diapers, replacing her feeding tube and driving her to doctor’s appointments on her work breaks. She also modified her home to make it wheelchair accessible.
When she gets some time, Hodnett said she’ll investigate whether she’s eligible for paid family leave. “It gets hectic sometimes,” she said. “… I’m trying to get everything together so I can breathe a little bit!”
The family leave paycheck is smaller for part-time, low-income workers like Lee Martin. Martin, who is 74 years old, cares for her 84-year-old husband Robert, who has pulmonary failure and is tethered to an oxygen tank full-time. She cares for him when she’s not at her part-time job at Kay Chesterfield, an upholstery workshop in Oakland where she does furniture refinishing. The company has fewer than 20 employees so it isn’t required to offer the leave, Martin said, but she couldn’t have afforded to take it anyway.
Martin and her husband both have Social Security Income and her husband has a small pension and good health insurance from his job as a liquor salesman. Still, his oxygen costs over $1,000 a month, Martin said. Then there’s the occasional hospital stay, doctor’s appointments and gas.
“It all adds up,” she said. “Financially we are in a bit of a bind.”
Rather than take leave, sometimes seniors simply retire early or quit working to care for family members. For people of color, who are less likely to have built up retirement savings, that is more of a challenge.
But that’s not the case for Deborah Kinley, a 63-year-old African-American caregiver who recently retired with a healthy pension as a dean at Glendale Community College in suburban L.A. County. Rather than take leave, Kinley was financially able to retire in order to have more time to care for her longtime sweetheart, 82-year-old Donald Boyd, a retired Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer.
Boyd has dementia and gets confused in crowds, yet being home alone was isolating and uncomfortable for him.
“I felt guilty leaving him alone,” Kinley said. “He functions very well, but I want to make sure he’s eating right. We’re doing as much as we can while we can.”