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Contributed photo by Unum / Emily Flynn, left, and her husband Kevin play with their two children. Kevin had brain surgery last February, which required Emily to quickly juggle her work and child care roles. Unum adopted a new caregiver policy this year to aid its workers such as Emily by providing up to five days a year of paid leave for such care giving.

A routine medical exam last February revealed that Kevin Flynn needed another brain surgery, which his doctors immediately scheduled two days later.

Flynn's pregnant wife Emily, a leave specialist at Unum's headquarters in Chattanooga, was forced to juggle her work and child care roles to help her 30-year-old husband, who has congenital hydrocephalus and required his 12th operation to repair a shunt implanted in his brain to help remove excess cerebrospinal fluid.

"When I found out he needed surgery that quickly, it kind of took everyone off guard," Emily Flynn recalled. "I quickly had to figure out how to deal with child care and my responsibilities at work and how to manage all that with my leave time and still be able to pay our bills. It gets really complicated very quickly."

Flynn and other Unum employees will face fewer such complications this year since Unum adopted a new caregiver policy to provide its workers up to five days a year of paid caregiver leave for those who require extended time away from work to care for a spouse, child or parent due to a serious health condition.

The Chattanooga-based insurance giant added the benefit for its nearly 10,000 employees across the country in response to growing concerns among workers for assistance in caring for elderly parents or other sick family members. Although the federal government allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for such care under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, most private employers do not provide paid leave to care for a family member other than a newborn child or adopted child.

"Caregiving takes a toll on workers and their emotional, physical and financial well-being," said Rob Hecker, vice president of global total rewards at Unum. "This benefit is one way we can better support our workforce through all stages of life."

Flynn said she is "overjoyed" by the new caregiver policy at Unum, which "gives me a lot of peace of mind of my husband should need another surgery" sometime in the future.

"I can relax and focus on making sure that I'm there for my husband," she said. "It's definitely a big advantage for someone like me."

Most major employers provide some paid parental leave for the birth of children or child adoptions, but caregiver pay while employees take time off to help their parents, spouses or others is rarer.

Last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress required employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide some paid leave to employees who were sick or diagnosed with COVID-19, or taking care of children who were suddenly home all day. But that mandate ended at the end of 2020.

"It took a pandemic to make it happen, but U.S. employers are waking up to employees' need for leave benefit strategies that reflect reality," Unum said in a recent report on employee benefits.

Last year, Gov. Bill Lee also pushed to have caregiver paid leave for state employees in Tennessee. Lee's executive order allows about 38,000 state employees across most state departments to take time off in order to care for a new baby after birth or adoption, as well as starting foster care or providing care to a sick family member.

"Strong families make for strong communities, and I am proud that Tennessee will lead the nation in supporting our employees," Lee said at the time he adopted the new policy, one of the first of its kind among the states.

One in six workers are caregivers, but less than one in five have access to paid family leave benefits, according to surveys for Unum, one of the nation's biggest providers of insured benefits.

A Gallup-Healthways survey in 2011 found that 56% of employed caregivers work full-time.

Unum's research among more than 600 such working caregivers found that 61% said they face stress, anxiety, or depression, 49% said they encounter exhaustion and 44% reported instances of financial strain.

Hecker said Unum decided to adopt the caregiver paid leave for its staff as a way to help its diverse workforce balance their work and personal lives, across all stages of life.

"Paid caregiver leave gives employees the time to focus on caring for those they love when they need it most," he said. "It's an important part of supporting the physical, emotional, and financial well being of our employees and their families."

As employers compete to recruit and retain their workers, caregiver benefits could prove more popular in the future, especially as more workers have to care for their aging parents as well as their immediate family members.

A Unum survey conducted among 400 employers last June found that 44% of companies plan to expand paid leave benefits this year.

One of Chattanooga's biggest employers, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, is among such companies still looking at the benefit option, according to company spokeswoman Alison Sexter.

"While we don't provide paid caregiver leave at this time, we regularly review our benefits and compare them against the market to ensure we're providing our employees with a competitive package of resources that support a good work-life balance," she said.

Sexter said birth parents at BlueCross can receive eight weeks of paid leave per calendar year, non-birth parents can receive four weeks of paid leave per calendar year, and employees who adopt a child can receive four weeks of paid leave per calendar year, in addition to adoption assistance of $5,000 once per calendar year.

"Our employees also have access to facility or in-home care for children and adults from Bright Horizons, a national network of dependent care providers, which can be used up to 10 times per year for last-minute or short-term needs," Sexter said. "Additionally, our SupportLinc Employee Assistance Program offers referrals and consultations for both child care and elder care."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

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