How Joan Lunden became a caregiving advocate

For many working moms, starting a new job just weeks after having their first child would be a logistical nightmare. But for Joan Lunden, the situation was made easier thanks to her employer, ABC, which in 1980 recognized it needed to help Lunden’s new caregiving reality as she became the latest host of Good Morning America.

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“I was fortunate,” says Lunden, who will keynote the upcoming Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. “I worked for a company that not only gave me time off when my daughters were born, but when I returned to work, I was privileged to be one of the first working women in this country to be allowed to bring my infant daughter to work with me.”

At that time, perks like that were highly unusual, Lunden explains.

“It was in my best interest, but also in their best interest. I helped to keep the ratings up, so they made profits. I think far too many businesses lose fabulous employees when they don’t extend paid leave and [give people the] assurance of keeping their jobs.”

Joan Lunden

Lunden’s self-described “good fortune” to be in that position with ABC–as well as the hundreds of letters she received from women nationwide explaining how meaningful benefits like hers would be in their own lives–helped light a “fire in me to embark on a path as a women’s and family advocate and do my part to help families get the support they need.”

That fire burned even brighter years later when she began taking care of her mother, who had dementia, and her older brother, who had begun experiencing complications from Type II Diabetes. Lunden spent years traveling cross-country from the East Coast, where she worked and was raising her children, to California, where her mom and brother lived, to helped take care of them until both of their deaths.

“As part of what has become known as the sandwich generation, I found myself caring for my children–ranging in age from young babies to teens and young adults–at the same time I was caring for my aging mom and brother, all while working full time,” says Lunden, who will speak about her story and the role employers play in helping caregiving employees during the opening keynote address at HBLC May 11. The conference, held virtually May 11-13 and free this year for attendees, will go in-depth on COVID-19 and smart benefit strategies to help struggling employees. To register for the event, click here.

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Decades after Lunden paved the way at ABC, many more employees are on a similar journey–parenting, taking care of older family members or both. Those challenges have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many daycares, schools and eldercare facilities closed, leaving many employees juggling homeschooling or taking care of an elderly relative while working from home. As a result, many female workers in particular have already exited the workforce, with many more considering doing so.

It’s just one reason it’s a group that Lunden is passionate about helping.

She is the spokesperson for the senior referral service A Place for Mom, a company that helps caregivers and families find the right care and resources for their loved ones. She co-authored Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers, published in 2012, and hosted the series Taking Care with Joan Lunden–which explores the challenges of caregiving–on the RLTV network.

She’s also taken her advocacy efforts to lawmakers. Early last year, Lunden testified during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing in support of the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). The legislation would provide 12 weeks of partial income for family leave. Funding would come through a payroll tax.

“The number of American workers who will need personal medical leave either for themselves or for another family member is only going to increase,” Lunden said, citing statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services that about half of Americans turning 65 will develop a disability “serious enough that they will require care.”

“We are in the middle of a caregiving crisis, and that is why I so strongly believe that any paid leave policy should address the full range of caregiving needs that families will face,” Lunden told lawmakers during her testimony. “Families everywhere are counting on you, Congress, to enact this type of comprehensive paid family medical leave that will help all of us when we need it the most.”

That legislation wasn’t passed last year, but it was reintroduced again this year, giving some advocates hope for a permanent national paid leave law. In March, nearly 200 employers–including Etsy, Levi Strauss & Co. and Pinterest–wrote to House and Senate leaders asking them to pass permanent paid family and medical leave through the Biden-Harris administration’s recovery package.

“We cannot emerge from this pandemic and remain one of only two countries in the world with no form of national paid leave,” the letter read. “We need a policy that is inclusive and that protects all workers equally, regardless of what kind of work they do, where they live or whom they love.”

See also: Here’s how working moms want employers to support them

Advocates say a federal leave policy would help millions of employees who take care of family members. Research by the AARP says there were about 41 million family caregivers in the United States in 2017, and they provided about 34 billion hours of unpaid care for other adults. The economic value of their efforts was estimated at $470 billion.

And although some states offer paid caregiving leave and employers are beginning to zero in on caregiving and parental efforts–a recent survey of 113 large employers by the Business Group on Health found 40% of respondents expanded paid-leave benefits in 2019, for instance–gaps still remain. While larger employers are more likely to offer competitive benefits like caregiving and parental leave, most mid-size and smaller companies are less likely to. Part-time workers are even less likely to receive such benefits. And though the federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows many employees to take off up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year without risk of losing their jobs, it doesn’t provide any financial assistance for employees.

“A few short weeks would give time to bond with a new baby, a chance to say goodbye to a loved one and peace of mind to care for yourself in life’s most challenging times,” Lunden says about enforcing a paid family leave program. “Paid family and medical leave will support families, and also employers, since they won’t have to lose workers when life happens. In the end, not having to make that choice between income and caring for our loved ones will make us all stronger, both at work and at home.”

It’s a fight Lunden refuses to give up.

“I’m hoping to use my public platform to help ensure that Americans everywhere get the support they need to tend to new babies and aging relatives and still be able to keep their jobs,” she says. “It was 40 years ago that ABC extended paid leave to me for my maternity leave and allowed to bring my newborn daughter to work. Americans wrote in, happy to see a change beginning to take place, but asked, €˜What about the rest of us?’ Here we are, 40 years later, still asking the same question.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.