It’s been almost 11 years now since my wife first started showing signs of younger onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her primary care provider told us she was “too young” to have Alzheimer’s and dismissed my concerns.
At the time, we were both teachers. My wife, Jackie, taught music. We knew something was wrong, but it took until 2012 for an accurate diagnosis when it became clear she could no longer continue to work. Three years later in 2015, it was clear that I would need to stop working so I could take care of Jackie full time. On top of all this, I helped my brother take care of our father who passed away last December at age 96.
There are thousands of Maine families who are in a similar circumstance. They are trying to work and take care of a family member who needs their support during a time of sickness. They’re adopting or having a child, or facing a health care crisis of their own.
Paid family and medical leave would make a real difference in their lives, and help to ensure that they can take care of their families, secure in the knowledge that they will have a job to return to and the resources to avoid financial catastrophe.
The Maine Legislature is currently considering legislation that would create a paid family and medical leave system in Maine. Employees would contribute a small percentage of their pay — less than 1 percent — and would gain the ability to take up to 12 weeks of paid family leave and 20 weeks of paid medical leave when they need it.
It’s an investment that can protect families when they need the help the most.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only about 17 percent of U.S. workers have paid family leave through their jobs. And while most people know that there’s a federal law that says that they are entitled to take family and medical leave, they aren’t aware that they aren’t required to be paid. It can be a scary situation at a time that’s already stressful.
Four years ago, I had to choose between taking care of my wife and my job. I don’t think that’s a choice that other people should have to make.
I spent four years in the U.S. Coast Guard, working on a buoy tender, an ice breaker and at lighthouses. I spent another 17 years in the Maine Army National Guard, including time as a combat engineer. During my service, I learned that you have to be able to count on other people and we need to take care of one another.
To me, that means that we need to develop a system that understands that bad things can happen to all of us — things that are beyond our control — and that helps to protect working people from financial disaster.
Whether you’re a young family just starting out with a new child, someone looking after an aging parent or, like me, taking care of someone you love who is sick, at some point most working people will need to take time away from the job to become a caregiver.
A universal paid family and medical leave system protects workers, but it’s also good for businesses. It will make Maine more competitive as we try to attract new people to our state and ensure that everyone — and not just those with high-paying jobs — have a safety net when they need it.
When I think back to when we learned about my wife’s illness, I believe that paid family and medical leave would have eased the transition and perhaps kept me in the workforce for a few more years. I hope that support is there for others.
Every day that we wait, is one day too long for families in Maine.
Thom Frisk of Bangor is a veteran and former teacher.