A growing problem
This is hardly the only case of a grandparent fired or penalized at work for providing care related to her grandchildren, says Joan C. Williams, author of Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. There are no firm statistics on such actions, but she cites cases where a grandfather was disciplined at work for refusing to work overtime because he had to pick up a grandchild from school, and numerous cases where grandparents were fired after taking off time to care for sick grandchildren. Considering that half of Americans ages 50 to 65 have grandchildren, according to the Pew Research Center (PDF), "calling in grandparent" is becoming more and more of an issue in the workplace, says Williams.
"Grandparents are very deeply involved with childcare at a time when many of them are still working," says Williams, founder and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. "So, many grandparents have exactly the same kind of work-family conflict that parents have."
Donna Novak found herself in a similar predicament when her 18-year-old daughter developed postpartum depression after her son was born with severe jaundice.
"My daughter had just lost it," says Novak, 47. "They put her on psych medicine. They said that she was just going through a postpartum depression because the baby is ill. She kept saying, 'Mom, it's something I ate, it's something I did,' and I'm like, 'No it's not. Things just happen.' "
Novak requested FMLA leave to care for her daughter, whom she believed could not care for herself or a newborn. The request was denied and Novak was terminated by her employer, MetroHealth System in Cleveland, for exceeding her allowable leave and not reporting to work. MetroHealth maintains that Novak's firing was proper because her request did not meet the definition of FMLA leave, an argument supported by the courts. "The FMLA does not entitle an employee to leave in order to care for a grandchild," reads the ruling in the lawsuit Novak filed against MetroHealth. "We conclude that [Novak's daughter's] postpartum depression did not constitute a 'disability,' as that term is defined under the FMLA, and therefore the FMLA did not authorize Novak's leave to care for her."
This is an example of why the FMLA does not go far enough to protect families, says Williams.
"What would we think of a mother who felt her grandchild was at risk because the daughter was so depressed? What would we think of the grandmother if the grandmother didn't go?" says Williams. "That's what's so shocking about these situations. We would think this woman doesn't have her head screwed on straight."