Military service members, veterans, and their families make enormous sacrifices for our country. A service member’s foreign deployment away from family to a foreign country or a war zone can disrupt their families’ stability and economic security. And, if service members return from deployment wounded, ill, or injured physically or mentally, their family members often become informal caregivers, making sacrifices to help with their loved one’s recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration. Paid family leave programs can provide significant support to military families, service members, and veterans. Yet, no national policy exists. While we honor veterans on Veterans Day, we must do more than symbolic gestures to support veterans and their families by taking substantial action to pass comprehensive paid family and medical leave.
Veterans and their families are a particularly vulnerable population, with health problems and economic insecurity that can be compounded by a lack of paid family leave. There are approximately 19.5 million veterans in the United States, including almost 3 million post-9/11 veterans and 1.6 million post-9/11 women veterans. New analysis of a 2017 CAP survey, first described in 2017, found that 28 percent of former active duty service members reported taking time off from work to provide care for friends or chosen family with a health need. In addition to the care they provide others, veterans may also need significant care and support. More than 40 percent of post-9/11 veterans have a service connected disability—higher than pre-9/11 veterans—leading to more than 1.9 million veterans or service members who relied on caregiving support in 2013. Many veterans struggle with mental and physical health problems, unemployment, and homelessness and face problems receiving care from underfunded and mismanaged federal programs dedicated to veterans and their families. There are also too many post-9/11 veterans living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to meet their basic needs.
Military families and family caregivers provide vital informal care to veterans but struggle without paid family leave to also care for their own economic security as well as physical and emotional health. A 2014 RAND report on military caregivers found that more than three-quarters of the 1.1 million post-9/11 military caregivers are employed, and 60 percent of post-9/11 military caregivers spend more than eight hours a week on caregiving. This overlap, compounded by the lack of paid leave, means that caregivers can miss work and experience other strains on work. Post-9/11 military caregivers report missing more than three times as many days of work per month on average than civilian caregivers. Almost half of post-9/11 military caregivers report having to make work adjustments and more than 60 percent report financial strain—higher than both pre-9/11 military caregivers and civilian caregivers. The RAND report also found post-9/11 military caregivers experience negative health outcomes, as more than one-third experience a probable major depressive disorder. This is due in part to the fact that almost one-third of caregivers lack health care coverage.
The importance of federal paid leave programs to military families
Given the challenges veterans and their caregivers face, it is vital that military families be able to take time away from work to care for themselves or their loved one without sacrificing their own income. Comprehensive paid family and medical leave would allow parents to take leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Caregivers and service members who are caregivers could take leave to care for injured, ill, or wounded family members, including chosen family—people who are like family but may not be related by blood or legal ties. Military families could use paid leave to spend time with service members (known as qualifying exigency leave) before foreign deployment or during rest and recuperation leave; manage family affairs related to rearranging child care or financial needs; and attend military events or support programs.
Unfortunately, current federal family and medical leave programs fall short of this goal. (see Table 1 for a summary of programs)
None of the existing federal leave programs adequately meet all of the needs of military service members, veterans, and their families. The eligibility requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) mean that many workers are not qualified to take leave from their employer. Others simply cannot afford to take unpaid FMLA. Under the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Military Parental Leave Program, service members can take paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, but the program provides unequal weeks of leave for primary and secondary parents. In addition, caregiving leave for nonbirth parents is subject to approval by the member’s commander. This discretion can lead to uneven and possibly discriminatory granting of leave, especially for same-sex families and adoptive parents.
The current programs that provide compensation for military caregivers are intended to work together during the transition from service member to veteran, but the transition is anything but smooth and the programs can fall short of providing adequate compensation. The DOD’s Special Compensation for Assistance with Activities of Daily Living (SCAADL) program only covers severely injured or ill current service members but excludes others with a less severe service-connected disability or nonservice-connected disabilities. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) provides low stipend amounts for caregivers of wounded or injured veterans—only $7,800 to $30,000 annually in 2016—and has been criticized for being ineffectively administered, leading to some veterans still in need of assistance being dropped completely from the program. The disparities between the two programs (for example, in eligibility, definitions of family members, and definition of activities of daily living) has also caused problems for veterans and their caregivers when transitioning between the programs.
In the six states, plus the District of Columbia, that have passed their own paid family and medical leave law (Rhode Island, California, New Jersey, New York, Washington, and Massachusetts), military caregivers can or will soon be able to take paid leave to care for a wounded, ill, or injured family member. Massachusetts’s paid leave law provides additional time for military caregiving, up to 26 weeks. Four of these states also allow military families paid leave for qualifying exigency leave, which allows workers to take leave to manage family affairs or attend military events that arise from a family member’s call to active duty. New York’s law was effective January 2018, Washington state’s will be effective in January 2020, and Massachusetts’ and California’s respective laws will be effective in January 2021.
The various needs of military families exemplify all the of the reasons why Americans need paid leave, including personal medical leave, parental leave, caregiving leave, and qualifying exigency leave. A national, comprehensive paid family and medical leave policy—one that incorporates caregiving leave and recognizes that people beyond a veteran’s immediate family are caregivers—would remedy the inconsistencies between the patchwork of existing leave laws and provide economic security for military families. The FAMILY Act is a current legislative proposal to create a national paid family and medical leave program that meets many of these key requirements. Honoring our service members, veterans, and military families means designing comprehensive paid family and medical leave that supports their health and economic security and allows them time to care for themselves and their loved ones.
Diana Boesch is a research assistant of women’s economic security for the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress.