En español | Of the many types of caregiver stress, financial strain produces some of the longest-lasting effects. Unemployment or underemployment for one member of a household can have a domino effect, causing caregivers and their family members to suffer from depression, negative health consequences, inadequate nutrition or medical care, and lowered socioeconomic status or poverty.
I was fired at the expiration of my family medical leave while looking after my mom during her catastrophic cancer. It hurt in many ways. I was a newlywed with a new home and mountains of student-loan debt that my husband and I incurred to get through college. That job loss and other events (major flooding, which destroyed our house; intense caregiving; an inability to return to the long hours demanded of a young lawyer; job searching in a weak economy just a few years off a major recession) swept away my family's financial stability. We learned how to make do on very little but gave up so very much and had to commit to unwavering thriftiness. I can make pennies cry, I'm so good at pinching them! And to this day — nine years later — my family's finances still suffer from the aftershocks of that career derailment.
Caregiving while employed
Over 60 percent of caregivers are employed while they tend to others. Of those caregivers, 60 percent are employed full time. Caregiving and working are not always compatible. Almost all caregivers have to make some work adjustments, but the number of them who will be forced to leave their jobs or suffer negatively at work is significant and expected to rise due to the inability to find or pay for home health care/respite care for care recipients and the need to limit COVID-19 exposure.
It's not sustainable for caregivers to leave their jobs or reduce their incomes when caregiving becomes a part of their lives. Much like my family, most households need multiple income earners to get by.
Today we stand in the early days of an unfolding recession. Complicating the already-complex world of caregiving is the coronavirus. The unemployment rate is around 11 percent, and furloughs and layoffs are common. Older workers (who are more likely to be caregivers), particularly, think that their jobs are in peril. Caregivers need the support and deliberate consideration of employers so that they can maintain their careers while balancing caregiving duties and enduring the uncertainty of a pandemic that may last for years.
Understand the law
As an employee, you must, first of all, know your rights. There are laws that protect the working caregiver. Among the federal laws that prohibit discrimination and offer benefits are the Family Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disability Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Several states now have paid-leave laws and additional discrimination protections. Learn what federal, state, and local laws and regulations apply to your employer and to you.
You may wonder whether you can ask for a workplace accommodation to avoid exposing your high-risk care partner to COVID-19. The simple answer is no. There is no law that entitles an employee without disabilities to an accommodation based on her care recipient's disability-related needs. So there is no legal protection that will allow you to, say, ask to telecommute as an accommodation so you can mitigate your care recipient's exposure to the coronavirus.
Your employer may be addressing the needs of parents of school-age children by offering options like telecommuting and schedule modifications. Businesses may provide any flexible arrangements as long as they are not treating employees differently based on sex or other EEO-protected classes. For example, under Title VII, female employees cannot be given more favorable treatment than male workers because of a gender-based assumption about who may have caregiving responsibilities for children. Of course, a company is free to provide such options if it so chooses. But an employer opting to offer additional flexibilities beyond what the law requires should be careful not to engage in disparate treatment on a protected EEO basis.
Make your needs known
Request what you need and what will help you continue your job duties. Since the coronavirus outbreak, employers have asked workers to be flexible. It is only fair and right that we ask them to be flexible with us in the time ahead.
Even if your organization is not bound to follow laws like the FMLA, it should, at a minimum, consider the best practices that have proved to support workers with caregiving responsibilities. If you don't know your employer's policies, procedures and benefits for working caregivers, ask! If the company has no formalities in place, encourage supervisors to follow these best practices.
Aside from needing more time to provide care, most workers leave their jobs because of a lack of flexible hours, no paid leave and an inability to afford paid help. These are all fixable problems. Options like telecommuting, respite-care benefits, flex time, job sharing, family-friendly overtime, paid leave and sick leave for caregiving can give you the time to work and to manage your caregiving duties. Large organizations nationwide are adopting these benefits, and there's a good body of research that shows that offering them is good for business. They help employers retain and recruit good people and limit the future need of searching for talent among a diminished pool of workers (most of whom will be caregivers, too).
Fight for your rights
Finally, make sure to protect yourself and your livelihood. I didn't fight for my job. While I am endlessly grateful for my current career and the chance to advocate for other caregivers, I wish that I had stood up for myself. If you believe that your employer has treated you unfairly or you are being discriminated against because of your caregiving responsibilities, take action. Report your concerns to human resources or your managing supervisor. Follow up in writing. Document your efforts, always.
And speak with an attorney who specializes in employment law in your state. There may be short statutes of limitations (laws that determine how long you have to file a claim or lawsuit), and there are specific procedures that must be followed to properly bring a claim. A competent attorney will be informed on these laws and procedures and be able to guide you.
While we figure out these times together, I encourage everyone to think of this as an opportunity to reframe how we all think, work, live and create a culture that supports the need to work and to care for the aging, ill, disabled and dying. If the people lead, the organizations will follow. Become educated on your rights and your employer's responsibilities, and ask for help when you need it. Advocate for caregiving-supportive workplaces and we will all get through this — together.