A friend in her 50s called me recently with a dilemma. After several months of searching in earnest for a new job, she had just been offered one. It was closer to home, paid well, and had a great retirement benefits package. The only thing, she said, was that her mom was now living with her, and mom had a whole host of health issues. Should she tell the hiring manager that she was her mom’s principal caregiver before accepting the offer?
Legally, we both knew she had no obligation to disclose her family situation. But, she wanted to know, did I think she should do so anyway?
And I admit I was stumped. Here’s why: Family leave policies are basically a guarantee you can’t lose your job when you reach certain life transitions: You have a baby, get sick, or have to care for a loved one. But those policies stop way short of what family caregivers really need.
When I was caregiving for my late-husband, my employer stepped up and provided me with tremendous support. No one tracked my hours or docked my pay if I had to leave work early or come in late. I was allowed to work from home when I needed to. My officemates regularly sent meals over and even offered to meet my kids’ school bus if I couldn’t get there in time. No law required them to do any of those things. They did them because of a corporate culture that sent the right message — and a good corporate culture can’t be regulated any more than you can legislate acceptance.
In my case, my editor stayed in touch with me daily and set deadlines around my ability to meet them. My department head checked in regularly to make sure I had whatever I needed. The corporate office even designated a person for me to call for help navigating our health insurance coverage. When I needed help getting my husband to and from dialysis three times a week, I was provided with referrals. A social worker checked in with me regularly to provide emotional support and helped me find a therapist.
I never once felt an ounce of pressure — other than that which I inflicted upon myself — to do anything but put my husband and kids first. I never felt that emotional tug-of-war between work and caregiving that many caregivers have. For me, the only balls I had to juggle were the ones concerning the many moving parts of being a caregiver.
I also never feared becoming irrelevant at work because of my inability to pay constant and undivided attention to my job during this time. Quite the contrary, how I was treated left me feeling highly valued, respected and, yes, loved. It is why once I hit retirement age, I didn’t bolt for the door. I worked for a couple more years and cried when I left.
My company went far and above what it had to do under family leave laws. And it is the exception to the rule.
Truth is, elder care today is as big a challenge as child care was 30 years ago but many companies still just ignore it. Taking care of an elderly parent or ill spouse is invariably an act borne out of necessity, not choice. Yet few companies offer anything to help workers through this difficult time.
Caregivers in the workplace
A Pew Research study found that 40.4 million Americans are helping at least one elderly parent with the tasks of daily living. And most of those 40.4 million have jobs. A full 70% of them have had to “make workplace adjustments,” said AARP. And yet, a mere 5% of their employers provide even referral help for their workers looking for elder care resources, said the 2014 Employee Benefits Survey from the Society for Human Resources Management.
Family caregivers in the workplace, by and large, fly solo. As the population ages and more of us are inevitably destined to become family caregivers to elderly parents, isn’t it time that we expand benefits packages to our new reality? Benefits packages should age along with the employees they serve. If companies can have an on-site day care center available, why not their adult-care equivalent?
Which leads me back to my friend who was contemplating taking a new job, but was worried about how that would play out while she cared for her mom.
On the one hand, she knew with certainty that working closer to home and earning more money would help her help her mom — but only if the corporate culture promoted understanding of her situation.
She was taking a risk, starting afresh in a new workplace without the established relationships she had at her current company. How flexible would the new company be when she had to drive her mother to one of her frequent doctors’ appointments? Could she work from home on days when her mom couldn’t be left home alone? Would her new boss and coworkers regard her as unreliable if she was constantly late because of her caregiving responsibilities?
My answer about whether she should disclose her job as a caregiver was to point out the obvious: Better to tell them upfront and test the corporate culture now rather than later.
Go ahead and tell me I’m wrong.
Ann Brenoff was a staff writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where she won a shared Pulitzer for coverage of the Northridge Earthquake. Most recently, she was a senior writer and columnist for HuffPost based in Los Angeles.