‘Zero Weeks’ Zeroes In On Caregiving’s Conflict With Work
BY DANIEL GAITAN | firstname.lastname@example.org
Ky Dickens’ first pregnancy took an unexpectedly sour turn when she asked her long-time employer for a little time off to care for her baby girl.
“My job wasn’t protected and my company didn’t have to do anything for me,” Dickens told Life Matters Media. “My employer made it pretty clear that they would consult amongst the upper echelon, and whatever they did, I would be lucky.”
It was a jarring experience for Dickens, who had worked at the small production company for more than a decade. Her salary had already been slashed once when the company hit hard times. She was only hoping for a few weeks off.
“I was going through the most important period of my life, and they acted like it would be a huge favor for them to make it a stress-free time for me,” she said. “It broke my loyalty.”
Dickens found herself in the position of one quarter all American mothers who were to return to work within two weeks of having a baby. Dickens felt stung — and angry.
“Americans don’t have protections if they’re seriously ill, if they have a medical emergency or cancer, if their kid gets sick or injured and is in the hospital, or if they have an aging parent that they have to take care of,” Dickens said.
To highlight the plight of the overworked and underpaid, Dickens left that job and has spent more than three years creating Zero Weeks, her powerful new caregiving documentary now being screened nationwide.
The film has been an award-winner at the Colorado International Film Festival, International Women’s Film Festival and Spotlight Documentary Film Awards.
Zero Weeks couldn’t have come at a better moment.
Her salary had already been slashed once when the company hit hard times. She was only hoping for a few weeks off.
In 2016, only 14 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. reported having paid family leave through an employer, and that number is even lower for workers earning minimum wage. Making matters worse: an astounding 44 percent of American households don’t have enough savings to cover their basic life expenses for three months.
As a result, millions of working- and middle-class families are forced to make an impossible decision: care for a loved one with an unexpected emergency, or continue to work in order to keep a job and health insurance.
“The United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world without a paid family leave law,” Dickens said. “Paid family leave can minimize gender inequality, racial inequality and socio-economic inequality.”
Caregivers also keep seniors out of costly nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
Nearly two-thirds of seniors with long-term care needs rely exclusively on family and friends to provide assistance, according to a recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences. Another 30 percent supplement family care with assistance from paid providers.
Care provided by family and friends often determines whether a senior remains at home, the preference of the vast majority of Americans.
Half of seniors with long-term care needs but no family available to care for them are in nursing homes, while just 7 percent who have family caregivers are in institutional settings.
“It shouldn’t be this stressful,” Dickens said. “American policy does not value families. As much as politicians say they do, unless they’re advocating for paid family leave, they do not.”
“The United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world without a paid family leave law.”
Women Especially Vulnerable
Dickens calls for a social, political and economic revolution to strengthen the public safety net — and reshape gender norms.
“There needs to be a culture shift,” Dickens said. “You’re not going to have equality in the workplace unless you have equality at home, unless men are equally engaged and feel comfortable taking time off to care.”
More than two-thirds of American caregivers are women, according to findings from the Family Caregiver Alliance. Their caregiving accounts for more than $150 billion in unpaid labor annually.
“It’s the ‘sticky floor,’” Dickens said. “It’s a huge financial loss for women, and it’s not fair.”
Dickens said she’s encouraged that this issue is gaining steam in political discourse.
“The majority of people in both parties, the majority of Americans — over 70 percent — support paid family leave,” Dickens said, adding that the issue is now included in both Democratic and Republican party platforms. “When I first started the film, it was a total fringe issue. No one was talking about it. By the time we finished, it became a major issue.”
Dickens credits this shift to the aging population and fed-up voters.
People 65 and older will outnumber children by 2035, a first in U.S. history, according to projections released this week by the Census Bureau.
“It’s not tenable,” Dickens said. “We can’t reverse age.”
Although more than two dozen states are considering paid family leave, real change won’t happen without political pressure.
“Tell your story to your city council, state legislature,” Dickens said. “Stories are the foundation of advocacy. Advocacy is the foundation of policy. It all starts with stories.”
Zero Weeks will be screened in Chicago at the AMC River East 21 on Friday, March 23rd. A panel discussion will follow the screening; participants include Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL); Dr. David Soglin, Chief Medical Officer of LaRabida Children’s Hospital; small business leaders from Honey Butter Fried Chicken and In These Times magazine. Tickets must be purchased in advance. For more information, or to host a screening: http://www.zeroweeks.com/screenings/