What to Do When Employees Become Caregivers

What to Do When Employees Become Caregivers

Working Caregiver with Mom

As employers, we are accustomed to hiring people who have children, and are used to the issues that arise for parents. Now, however, the baby boom generation is stepping up to take care of their aging parents and relatives, and this is new territory for many employers.

The working caregiver is becoming the norm in today’s businesses.  Frequently, the support system to help caregivers is expensive and lean, or even nonexistent. That will need to change, if companies are to successfully navigate this new paradigm shift.

Who is the typical working caregiver?

In 2011, MetLife issued a study that showed that:

  • 66% are female
  • 71% are 50 – 55 years old
  • 77% of them are white
  • 57% of them work
  • Almost 10 million adult children over 50 years of age are caring for an elderly parent
  • 25% of adults provide caregiving for a parent
  • The average length of caregiving is almost four and a half years.

How working caregivers impact employers:

As our workforce ages, it is clear that caregivers are likely to be found in our workplaces. Why is this subject of concern to us as employers or managers? There are several reasons, both from a legal standpoint and a business perspective.

  • While caregivers themselves are not a protected class, they may fall into one depending on the situation and how they are treated.
  • Caregivers face many pressures which impact them on many levels. Their work, and the businesses they work for, are often not immune from the impacts.
  • If your business has 50 or more employees, you fall under the Family Medical Leave Act, which requires you to provide up to twelve weeks of unpaid job-protected leave to employees. This includes leave for caring for a parent with a serious health condition.
  • Even if you are smaller than 50 employees, there are still legal considerations.

Advice for employers on handling employees who become caregivers:

In 2007, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance on how businesses should treat caregivers in order to avoid unlawful disparate impact, which might fall under protected classes as defined under Title VII.

These best practices include some of the following:

Do not make assumptions:

Statistics tell us that women are more likely to be caregivers. This does not mean you should assume that a woman who has caregiving responsibilities would not want to take on a position at work with additional duties, or longer hours, because this could qualify as sex discrimination. A case for sex discrimination could also be made if a man shoulders the responsibilities of being a caregiver, and is treated with more respect than a female employee in the same situation.

Provide flexibility:

To the extent that it is possible, you should provide flexible work arrangements for employees with caregiving responsibilities.

It’s always expensive to lose an experienced employee, and to have to recruit and train a new one. In some instances, you can prevent this from happening by being flexible and creative.

There are a number of accommodations you can offer, including offering the option to telecommute, to work different hours, or to job share with another employee. Larger companies, like Verizon and Freddie Mac, offer benefits such as free eldercare consultants, access to subsidized aides, back-up care, and seminars on eldercare issues.

This is good business sense, as, according to the AARP, every dollar companies spend on eldercare benefits creates a return of $3.00 – $14.00!

Educate your workforce:

When an employee is acting as a caregiver, it is not at all uncommon for this to result in work performance issues, such as frequent, unexpected absences. This can obviously have an impact on other staff members, who may feel resentful or angry about dealing with such disruptions.

Your employees may not realize that coworkers and subordinates with caregiving responsibilities have the right to be treated equally. Allowing staff to make remarks or expressions of frustration about a caregiving employee’s situation can open you up to receiving a hostile work environment claim. To avoid this, educate your workforce about employees’ rights and foster a compassionate environment.

While the EEOC has set guidelines in their document “Enforcement Guidance: Unlawful Disparate Treatment of Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities” they make it clear that these are guidelines and not rules. Leslie Silverman, vice chair of the EEOC has made it clear that employers can still expect their caregiving employees to perform at the same level.

Problems faced by working caregivers:

Studies have shown that caregiving takes a huge toll on the caregivers themselves.

In 2010, the University of Pittsburgh studied 17,000 employees and found that those who were caregivers reported poorer health and more chronic disease. Their health care costs were 8% higher than non-caregivers.

It isn’t surprising that working caregivers report that they lack sleep, are depressed and have health issues due to their stress and caregiving responsibilities!  Employees also face mounting financial issues from their caregiving responsibilities. Baby boomers today are paying for their children’s college education while financially coping with their aging parents. 

The MetLife study states that the resulting workday interruptions, unpaid leave, absenteeism, and other issues cost businesses $34 billion a year.  MetLife estimates that lost wages, pensions and Social Security benefits for caregivers amount to $3 trillion.

The impact on the workplace can only be imagined as these workers face increasing financial burdens during an economic recession. Boomers were already expected to stay in their jobs longer. Caregivers who are sacrificing wages and retirement income may be forced to remain in the workforce for an even longer period of time.

The wrap-up:

In the “old days” there was a wife at home who could take care of the ailing parents. In the “old days” our parents didn’t tend to live into their 90s. But today, we’re in a dual-income society with modern medicine enabling people to live much longer.

This is a reality for millions of working caregivers in the United States. And it’s going to be a reality, at some point, for 25% of your adult workforce. The impacts and expenses to our companies are undeniable, and it’s just good business sense to be proactive in our response.

Providing basic eldercare benefits does not have to be an onerous or expensive task for your company, and it can be a real godsend for employees struggling with this thorny issue.  It can be as simple as compiling a list of local and useful resources for caregivers, and fostering a caring and flexible work environment for them.

As employers and managers, it is best for us to prepare for these issues in advance, not only to minimize the impact upon our businesses, but also to ensure that the employees we value have a support system in place in the event that they are shouldered with the hardships of caregiving.

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

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