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Currently, about 41 million Americans provide care to an adult with limitations in daily activities such as eating, dressing, or bathing, and approximately 60 percent of these family caregivers work at a paying job. Workplace discrimination against employees who care for adult family members, called Family Responsibilities Discrimination (FRD) or caregiver discrimination, is an escalating problem that can disadvantage employees and put employers at legal risk.

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This report details the ways in which state and local laws fill in the gaps left by federal law by prohibiting employment discrimination that occurs because of family caregiving. The laws vary in their scope, with most protecting only employees who care for minor children while others protect employees who care for any family member, including parents, parents-in-law, grandparents, and adult family members with disabilities. In addition to prohibiting discrimination, many of the laws let employees sue their employers in court for monetary damages and other relief—which makes the laws more useful to employees and more dangerous for employers to ignore.

Caregiver Bias

The typical cause of FRD is “caregiver bias.” In the workplace, this bias arises from supervisors’ assumptions about employees who provide family care, such as the notion that the employees will prioritize their families over work, they will not be available for assignments requiring long hours or travel, they will not be dependable and will miss deadlines, they will not be committed to their work and will eventually quit, they will be absent frequently, and they will be distracted and unproductive.

Caregiver bias can also influence hiring and firing: rejecting applicants who ask for a flexible schedule, or terminating or forcing employees to quit by making their work life miserable. Caregiver bias and FRD can vary based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other factors in ways that mirror existing social inequities and stereotypes.

Key Findings

  • Several federal laws prohibit FRD – primarily Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – but provide only limited protection. They apply to only specific workplace issues, such as retaliation for taking family leave or discrimination because the employee is associated with someone who has a disability, and only certain types of family caregiving, such as being the parent of a young child.
  • Some states provide more protection for family caregivers. Delaware passed a law that broadly prohibits discrimination against employees because they care for adult family members. Three other states have laws that are more limited in protection but could be expanded to include family caregivers.
  • Of local jurisdictions (cities, towns, villages, or counties), 191 have passed laws prohibiting workplace discrimination against family caregivers, but only 17 percent of these laws specifically include employees who care for adult family members. An additional 26 percent of local laws are unclear about whether they include employees who care for adult family members. 
  • Many of the local laws that cover family caregivers allow employees to sue their employers in court for monetary damages and attorney’s fees. Often these laws do not place a cap on the amount of damages a court or jury can award, which means that employers face a greater financial risk from lawsuits brought under these laws than under federal laws.
  • Policy makers and advocates who want to expand legal protections for employees caring for older relatives and adult family members with disabilities may wish to focus initial efforts on state and local jurisdictions that have laws that have not defined the type of family caregiving covered or include only caring for minor children.

Suggested citation: 

Calvert, Cynthia Thomas, and Jessica Lee. Caring Locally for Caregivers: How State and Local Laws Protect Family Caregivers from Discrimination at Work. Washington, DC: AARP Public Policy Institute, February 2021.