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Caregiving and COVID: Ways Women Can Thrive at Work and Home

Opting out of the workforce is not your only course of action

spinner image Female caregiver sitting at a desk at work on a video conference call
Alistair Berg/Getty Images

It is not hard to believe most American family caregivers also have paying jobs. In fact, over 29.2 million — a whopping 61 percent — hold down a job (or two) while caring for a loved one or friend. For years, there have been growing concerns about those caregivers leaving or losing employment due to family caregiving responsibilities. Add to that the so-called “caregiving cliff” — a time in the 2020s when it is expected there will be more people who need care than people able to provide it. Then last year, along came the coronavirus and everything changed. The pandemic instantaneously shed light on the plight of working caregivers and accelerated the need to make major changes in how our society supports them.

All generations of working women are affected by the dual crises of caregiving without adequate support systems and weathering the impacts of the pandemic. Since the virus outbreak, women have left the workforce at disproportionate rates — four times that of men. When the U.S. economy lost 140,000 net jobs in December, every single position lost belonged to a woman. By comparison, men gained 16,000 positions. Clearly, more economic pain is on the horizon for businesses, women and families.

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Between the talk of "lifetime consequences” to women's careers because of the pandemic and the long-anticipated caregiving cliff now sitting on our doorstep, this is the time for bold action. While policymakers and employers need to lead the charge, there are steps you can take as an individual to not just to survive this time but to help women workers thrive in the decades to come.

Security first in the short term

Women are struggling. It's intense to be a care provider, worker and raiser of children (or grandchildren) during a pandemic. Last fall — when I was wearing my caregiver, attorney and momma hats simultaneously — was a marathon for me. Those hats get heavy when you wear them all at once, and life can suddenly seem like a pain in the neck! While I can certainly relate to the feeling that “something's got to give,” it's disappointing, but not surprising, to learn that one in four women surveyed in corporate America was considering resigning or “downshifting” careers as the events of 2020 unfolded.

Last year wasn't my first time in the caregiving rodeo. During my first stint as a caregiver (for a parent with cancer), I lost my job when my family medical leave expired and I could not return to work full time. My mother was residing in a hospice house and at the end of her life when my medical leave hours ran out. Although I requested an accommodation, my employer said it was unable to “accommodate a reduced schedule due to client needs.” It was a financial catastrophe and a setback that my family struggled greatly to recover from.

In the 10 years since, workplaces have become more open to the plight of caregivers. And in just the past five years, workplace benefits and attention to caregiver-employee needs have increased significantly nationwide.

You may not feel like you have options — I understand that completely. In the year I cared for my mother, my thoughts were: “If not me, then who?” and “No one will care for her like I do.” But I implore all working caregivers now to explore every available option before considering a workforce departure. Be flexible in your thinking about what you can accomplish — and about what you can put in someone else's hands.

Understand your employer's work policies, benefits

Understanding your rights and knowing what policies and accommodations your workplace offers is step one. If so-called respite care hours are provided, use them. If your employee assistance program offers a care coordination service, delegate to it. If flexible hours are an option, modify your schedule. And it's so important to talk to your supervisor about your situation and document all your conversations on the subject. At least one in three employed caregivers says that their supervisor is unaware that they provide care. Supervisors and managers cannot empathize and respond to the challenges you face unless they know what you're experiencing. Be transparent and clear about what would help you perform better at work and at home.

Getting creative with your at-home help can free you up to focus on work. Reach out to your local Area Agency on Aging, Senior Services, Caregiver Advocacy programs, Buy Nothing groups and Moms’ Boards Having a meal delivered once or twice a week, trading babysitting hours with other local families, and hiring in-home aides or medication management services can take a lot off your plate. Sure, COVID restrictions have added challenges, but a conscientious helper who takes the necessary precautions will be worth their weight in gold. Understand that you cannot work two (or more) full-time jobs without burning out or getting sick yourself. And combining caregiving with a 40-plus-hour-a-week job and parenting/grandparenting duties is a recipe for burnout.

Just adding caregiving to your life can cause financial strain (37 percent of working caregivers report moderate to high financial strain, and we can reasonably assume this number explodes for unemployed caregivers). Caregiving plus job loss is a devastation. Before you step away, consider the plus side of staying employed.

  • Compared with the complex and emotional nature of caregiving, going to work can seem like a break. My office was my quiet haven last year, and my productivity was through the roof because I knew I'd get no work done at home while tending to my care recipient and homeschooling my little one!

  • Maintaining your employment means that you'll continue to contribute to your retirement, assuring your own financial security today and as you age.

  • Continuing health, life and disability insurance for yourself and your spouse and children as a workplace benefit ensures that you are covered for your own medical needs and that, if you pass away, your family will receive an inheritance.

  • With ongoing employment, you are more likely to qualify for loans or a mortgage that will help you support your loved one if you're providing financial contributions as a caregiver.

  • While we don't generally recommend tapping into your own retirement to pay expenses, explore whether any of the retirement relief laws apply to you and will allow you to withdraw or take a loan without penalty. (Be prepared to learn that these laws have become much more restrictive in 2021.)
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Giving up a secure job with benefits should not be your first course of action. The average caregiving stint is four years, but leaving the workplace can make waves in your life that last well beyond that. And it can affect your finances for the rest of your life.

Laid-off, furloughed or fired: Make a plan of action

Low- and moderate-income women have experienced greater layoffs than high-income women. Some have been prevented from looking for work by the pandemic, and at-home caregiving and child or elder care responsibilities are roadblocks to a return to the workforce. In the past year, older workers have been the hardest hit by workforce reductions, furloughs and layoffs, and they may experience ageism in the hiring process when seeking new employment.

Identifying employers committed to creating a culture that supports caregivers and values experienced workers must be an integral part of your job search. Tap into resources like AARP's job board and local working women's groups for help connecting to an organization that will understand and value your contributions at work and at home.

Sectors where the majority of employees are female (like events and hospitality) have suffered some of the biggest losses. If yours is one of these impacted industries, this may be an opportunity to shift to a job that is growing in demand. Ironically, one of these is personal care aides. Who better to assist with hygiene, dressing and light medical tasks than current and former caregivers?

The small silver lining here is that employers are more likely to consider telecommuting and flexible hours than in the past. This may be helpful to those juggling their caregiving and family tasks at home, whether they can commit only to a part-time role or are looking for a full-time position.

Be compensated for caregiving

Whether you are already a caregiver or expect to become one in the future, careful planning with the person you're caring for can help you get paid for your caregiving duties.

Some possible avenues of caregiver compensation to investigate include:

  • Self-directed Medicaid services
  • Veterans'-directed care
  • Certain long-term care policies
  • Personal services and family contracts

Relieving the financial strain so you can attend to what matters most — your loved one — is an incredible gift.

Be the voice of change

Whether you're out of work, employed part time or full time, or a past, present or expectant caregiver, make your voice heard. Caregivers are speaking out in increasing numbers. Just this week, a full-page ad in the New York Times implored the Biden administration to implement policies for a short-term monthly stipend for mothers and to pass “long-overdue” polices like paid family leave and affordable childcare.

Caregivers recognize the value in paid leave, family leave, income tax credits and compensation for informal care providers. Contact your elected officials and encourage them to embrace these policies. Consult with your human resources representatives and supervisors to advocate for a caring culture in your workplace. Be a part of the necessary shift in the way the nation sees and values its caregiving force.

It has been a long-fought battle getting caregivers recognized by lawmakers and employers. And the coronavirus has changed the battlefield completely. While the economic impacts to women and the stunning job losses feel like setbacks to the progress we've made, the caregiving and coronavirus crises may end up pushing us toward the dramatic change that is so desperately needed.

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