Caregiving Should Be Respected at Work

Last month, an article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Caregivers are winning workplace discrimination cases, describing a recent report by the Center for WorkLife Law, Caregivers in the Workplace: Family Responsibilities Discrimination Litigation Update 2016. The report defines families responsibilities discrimination (FRD) as employment discrimination because of an employee’s caregiving obligations and provides statistics, trends, and stories of this growing area of litigation.

We agree, as the article stated, that all employers should want a “harder worker, and a happier workforce,” but it’s surprising how many don’t seem to know how to obtain it. The article and the report make the point that this caregiving problem will become personal to us all at some point in our careers. We likely can’t escape caregiving; therefore, we believe employers need to tackle it as an issue with importance similar to providing insurance to employees. How can we provide the best care to our family members if we don't feel that our jobs are secure? And how can anyone be expected to choose between their job and caring for a loved one?

The article states: “A caregiver can be someone tending to a sick child, a spouse or partner, or an aging parent.” We’d like to add that there are other types of family caregivers, specifically sibling caregivers, which was our personal experience. As two sisters in our 30s and working moms, we helped care for our oldest sister when she had end-stage cancer and subsequently died at the young age of 39. More and more of us, including young adults, have caregiving responsibilities (as noted in the article, in 2014, 25% of caregivers were millennials). However, during our experience caring for our sister, we often felt overlooked and discounted not only as young adult caregivers of a young adult patient but also as mere siblings.

We looked into applying for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave in order to have the peace of mind of job protection while caring for our sister. One of us was even encouraged to apply, only to be denied coverage, and we were shocked to learn that FMLA does not apply to siblings. Fortunately, we had fairly flexible work schedules and supportive work colleagues and did not face any outright employment discrimination. However, our sister’s illness significantly affected our daily lives and we can only imagine how others manage to juggle it all. Although no federal law explicitly protects employees from FRD, and protection for sibling caregivers is particularly lacking, we believe siblings matter and have unique roles to play in caregiving. The FMLA should be amended to cover siblings, and another federal statute enacted to protect all family caregivers from FRD.

The report from The Center for WorkLife Law is eye-opening. For example, the number of lawsuits relating to caregiving for aging relatives has grown more than 650% over the previous decade and is expected to continue to rise. The report contains examples of cases where employees were disciplined or fired for absences caused by caring for ill or dying family members, even when they were covered by FMLA, and of the terrible things that insensitive employers said to them. Importantly, the suggested best practices to prevent FRD include not just training and anti-discrimination policies, but practical solutions like “nonstigmatized flexible work programs.” Young adult caregivers, in particular, need such programs because they are often just starting out in their careers at the time they take on a caregiving role, and without increased awareness and nonstigmatized programs, they do not have the seniority or clout to demand the flexibility and reasonable accommodations needed to care for their loved ones.

Employers, employees, medical professionals, patients, and their families need to become more aware of the challenges, rights and responsibilities of caregivers, and come up with solutions. This will affect us all, and we, as a society, can do this better.