Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Families are Complicated and Paid Leave Can Help

Who could take care of a family member who slips on fried turkey?

On Thanksgiving, I will deep fry a turkey, make gluten-free rolls, and ensure a glass of my favorite wine is always in hand when greeting my immediate and distant family members.

There is a lot of us in the “gang gang” — including my mother, two siblings (one is a half sibling), my husband’s mother and her father, my husband’s sister, some people’s kids, some people’s partners, some friends, and a dog.

We also hope to say hello via video to my husband’s dad, step mom and his adopted sister and her kid.

Families are complicated. Sometimes when the dinner conversation turns to unsolicited parenting advice I wonder, “What would happen if one of us slipped on a piece of fried turkey and fell, broke a leg and required six weeks for healing?”

Should that happen, thank goodness for Washington’s new paid family and medical leave program. It means that almost everyone is covered to take care of another family member or to be taken care of themselves.

Under the plan, workers have the right to paid leave for the arrival of a new child or a long-term illness – whether their own or a family member’s. It can also be used to care for a family member that is dealing with a leg broken in three places after falling down a flight of stairs.

But who can take care of whom?

Let’s say that my mother, Dolores, is the person who broke her leg on the treacherous basement landing. My brother and I would be eligible to take 12 weeks to care for her and get her back on her feet. My husband could also take care of his mother-in-law. But my half-sister with no legal connection to my mother could not — even though my mother plays the role of a mother to her as an adult.

This chart shows the people coming to Thanksgiving dinner, with green arrows showing who can take care of someone else with paid leave. (All of the older people are retired, so would not be taking leave to take care of someone else.) . Everyone except poor Peanut Butter is covered by someone else.

As you can see, I can take paid leave from work to take care of seven people – my husband, my son, my mother, my sister, my brother, my mother-in-law, and my father-in-law.

If Mabel, my niece, is the victim of such fall, her mom would of course be able to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for her. But as her favorite aunt, I would at most be able to bring her a few meals during her recovery. I could not get paid family leave to care for her.

Marriage also means lots of changes in benefits. Married couples can take care of each other, while unmarried couples under age 62 cannot. If an unmarried couple live together, like Bertina and Clarence, Clarence can take leave to care for Bertina’s daughter, since he plays the role of father in her life. But if they do not live together and act “in loco parentis”, like in the case of Agnes and Jesús, they cannot take leave for each other’s kids.

What matters most, however, is that everyone has someone who can take care of them in times of need – and they can do so without putting themselves in financial straits. That’s something to be thankful for.

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