The High-Wire Act of Caregiving and Saving for Retirement

As states add paid leave laws, they’re expanding worker eligibility. In Oregon, which began offering its residents paid leave this month, workers must have earned at least $1,000 in a year to qualify and can take up to 12 weeks of paid leave annually to care for either a family member or chosen family, meaning anyone whom the worker considers a family member. Like most states that offer paid leave, Oregon doesn’t automatically cover self-employed workers but allows them to opt in to the program, which they can do by making quarterly, income-based contributions. The maximum weekly benefit is $1,523.63.

Every extra dollar is helpful because “caregiving is expensive,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at New America, a left-leaning policy group. Caregivers spend, on average, about $7,200 annually on caregiving, and those expenses — for items like special food for an ill person, health supplements or parking at a hospital — eat up 26 percent of caregivers’ incomes, according to a 2021 AARP survey.

“Having access to paid leave means being able at least to afford the basics,” Ms. Shabo said.

In states that have paid leave, one challenge is informing workers, particularly low-wage workers, that the leave programs exist, said Jenya Cassidy, the director of the California Work and Family Coalition.

“People either have never heard of it or assume it’s not for them,” Ms. Cassidy said.

Her organization recently held an informational round table, she said, where some participants described themselves providing care for others but didn’t identify as caregivers. “They said, ‘I’m just a daughter, a mother, fill in the blank,’” Ms. Cassidy recalled. “It’s such an invisible thing in our culture, the role of being an unpaid caregiver.”

Caregivers of adults tend to be older themselves — more than half are at least 50 — and six out of 10 are women, according to a 2020 AARP survey. They are more likely than non-caregivers to have less than $1,000 in savings and investments, and, when they retire early, are more likely to cite caregiving as a reason (rather than being able to afford to leave work), according to a 2023 report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

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