What Working Caregivers Must Know

Learn best strategies for dealing with your employer and what rights you have

When you're a caregiver, you're likely to run into situations that collide with your work responsibilities, such as appointments in the middle of the workday. Or those nightmare calls: Dad just had a heart attack and you have to leave the office now. Or Mom needs chemo twice a week — treatment times not dictated by your schedule. And guess what? There's no one else to take her.

AARP Caregiving Resource Center

AARP offers advice for working people who must be caregivers too- two people speak in an office

AARP offers advice for working people who are also caregivers. — Laura Doss/Corb

Wouldn't it be great if your boss just said, "Whatever you need to do — no problem"? Some will, but not all.

What are the best strategies for dealing with your employer, and what are your rights as a caregiver?

"Employees caring for elders have shockingly few rights," says Joan C. Williams, founder of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and coauthor of AARP's new report "Protecting Family Caregivers From Employment Discrimination."

You may have legal rights. Or not. Regardless, you'll need to find a way to meet both your personal commitments and your employer's work needs. Here's what you need to know:

* Find out if you qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a federal law that gives an employee 12 weeks of unpaid leave to take care of an immediate family member. It also protects your job when you return to work at the end of your leave. The hitch: Not all companies are covered. They must have 50 or more employees, and you need to have worked for the company for at least 12 months, logging a certain number of hours. You can take your leave all at once or in intermittent intervals that add up to 12 weeks. At the end of your leave, you must return to work to protect your job.

FMLA prohibits employers from threatening you ("If you take time off, there won't be a job for you when you come back") or making your work life more difficult because you requested a leave.

* Some states have laws that are similar, but not identical, to the federal FMLA and that may give you different benefits. Your first step should be contacting your human resources department, which is required by law to tell you your rights and to offer you leave if you qualify.

* Other federal laws, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), may help you as well. Your employer can't treat you differently if you're caring for someone with a disability covered under ADA. That means if the boss allows coworkers to take time off to care for their kids, they have to let you do the same with your disabled parent. The ADA also gives you protection if you lose your job or are harassed. And know that different treatment of men and women in the workplace is gender discrimination prohibited by federal and state laws.

The U.S. Department of Labor, legal aid organizations and other advocacy resources such as the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law Hotline (415-703-8276) can help you with your discrimination questions.

What if you don't qualify for FMLA or other laws? If no law applies, your employer does not have to give you time off or make any accommodations. That makes it all the more important to sit down and have a conversation with your boss and find solutions that will work for all parties.

Start by offering solutions. If you must take a parent or spouse to the doctor, schedule appointments early in the morning or at the end of the day and suggest making up the time on either end, at night or on weekends. Can you telecommute on days when you're needed at home most, or perhaps once a week? Flextime and telecommuting are becoming more common in the workplace.

"Employers don't want the lost productivity, disruption, poor morale or turnover that comes from conflicts with workers," says David Rosenthal, a Boston labor and employment lawyer. "They just want to know that the work will get done. Most bosses will find a way to keep good employees."

Most of all, communicate, and be prepared to compromise.

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