Working Out Caregiving With Your Employer
By Kathleen Hill
Here’s a familiar scenario: You’re a family caregiver and an employee. Your spouse, your parent or an in-law gets sick and you’re needed to help. You have no idea how long you’ll be out, or how your schedule will be disrupted.
If you tell your boss that you need a leave, or that you have to keep coming to work late or leaving early due to caregiving, will she think you are unreliable and uncommitted? Does it make more sense to keep your situation to yourself when you seem to have an unsympathetic boss or company? Or, will you have to cut back your hours, take a leave of absence, forgo a job promotion or quit altogether? When you’re a long distance caregiver, the choices can be even harder.
Due to longevity, good health, financial and social needs, and the prohibitive cost of long term care, more employees have dual worker/caregiver roles.
Recent studies bear this out:
• A 2015 National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP Public Policy Institute report found that 6 in 10 surveyed caregivers were employed (56% worked full time).
• 69% of elderly people will need help with daily activities, and 20% for 5+ years, reports a University at Buffalo’s College of Arts and Sciences and University of California, Los Angeles 2016 study.
What does this mean? For business, if not altruistic reasons, some companies have begun to realize that if they want to retain workers and their valuable institutional knowledge--and not have the hassle and massive expense of recruiting--they must be more sensitive to caregiving employees. And, in general, they are.
A Strategic Approach
Consider these issues:
1. What are your legal rights as an employee in this situation? Do you even have any? If you don’t, what are your options?
2. What is the best way interpersonally to handle your situation with your employer?
Understand that there are two things your employer will want to know: How your absence or changed circumstances will affect them, and will you still be able to do your work? If you can get your work done and minimize the burden on others—and tell them how you are going to do it—it has a good chance of working out.
Of course, if you have the kind of job that isn’t conducive to flextime or telecommuting, a different plan may be undoable (i.e. “Sorry, you’ll have to postpone your life-saving surgery until I get back” or “I have to stay with my mom out-of-town for awhile. That time-sensitive project we’re competing for with in-person presentations? Hmmm.”)
Getting Your Plan to Work
1. High tail it to HR. Find out about your rights and available resources. It would be fabulous if your company had eldercare benefits (on-site eldercare, free eldercare consultations, long term insurance for parents, in-laws, and grandparents), but not many do, so don’t count on it.
The human resources department is required by law to tell you what, if anything, is offered at the company such as paid and unpaid leave and workplace flexibility. They also may have referrals for services and organizations that can help your husband, mother or in-law.
If your company has 50 or more employees, you have been there at least 12 months and have worked a minimum of 1250 hours during the past 12 months, you may qualify for a leave of absence under the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It provides 12 weeks of leave to care for an immediate family member. You can take the leave all at once or intermittently until you have a total of 12 weeks. And you are guaranteed reinstatement at the end of that 12- week period provided you are ready to return to work then.
Under the federal FMLA, the 12 weeks is unpaid, unless state law provides otherwise. California, New Jersey, Rhode Island (and New York as of 2018) offer paid family and medical leave.
You may have another option, thanks to a federal law. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), if you’re taking care of someone elderly with a disability, your boss must treat you the same (give you similar time off) as he/she would if you had a young, disabled child. You also can’t be treated differently because of gender and the ADA protects you from losing your job or being harassed.
Companies with less than 50 employees are not required to follow the FMLA, but there may be state laws that effectively do the same thing. Or, your company might have its own policy that to a greater or lesser extent, offers the equivalent benefit.
2. Try to be flexible. Experts will tell you, if you are, employers who can are more likely to be, too. Of course, your flexibility may depend on more than you, though: doctors’ and caregivers’ schedules, adult day care hours, and the kind of work you do.
If it’s an important appointment for your mother-in-law, try to schedule it on a day of the week that is typically less busy in the office, or in the morning or late afternoon, so you’re around for an uninterrupted chunk of time. Come in early or stay late. Work on weekends. For the employer, it’s all about getting the work done.
3. Problem-solve. Rather than sneak around, be direct with your boss. Explain your situation and try to figure out what will work for both of you. Do your homework and make it as easy for him as you can. Maybe you could you telecommute a day or two a week, or embrace flextime (come in early three days a week, for instance, and leave earlier or work from noon until 8 p.m. or whatever allows you to get both professional and caregiving jobs done).
4. Do a test run, then reassess. Make a plan and see how it works. Offer to tweak or rethink the arrangement.
Juggling work and family is enormously complicated. And the solution for one caregiving crisis may be different from the next. But remember, if you demonstrate a sincere desire to make work work, most employers will try to accommodate you.