The Hard Choice Between Family and Job
As Thanksgiving draws near, I am reminded of how important family is. Yet, increasingly, workers who have family responsibilities find themselves torn between their commitment to their jobs, and taking time off to care for family members. I am talking about workers who face family responsibility discrimination.
In the last decade, lawsuits filed by caregivers against employers have risen almost 400%. These include employees who are pregnant, young mothers, and caregivers to sick family members or aging parents. Litigation is fast filling the gaps of public policy. Fortunately, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is paying attention. It issued enforcement guidance in 2007 on treatment of workers with caregiving responsibilities, and followed up with a report on employer best practice.
Traditionally, women have taken on the caregiving role. It was relatively easy since few mothers were in the labor force – in the 1960s, only 20% of mothers were employed. Today, in 70% of American families with children, all adults are
working outside the home. With more women in the labor force, the issue of caregiving has been pushed into the workplace. Although this is not just a women’s issue, it does affect women disproportionately.
Further, as the tidal wave of baby boomers enters retirement, more adults now find themselves
helping to take care of their aging parents. Of course, having to take care of aging parents is nothing new, as most Asian Americans know. What makes this trend acute for many families is that the caregiving burden is falling on fewer individuals as extended families scatter across the country, and family unit size continues to shrink. As Americans find themselves sandwiched between caring for aging parents and raising young children, whether we have the flexibility to take time off work to care for our family members will become increasingly crucial.
Equality for Men
Men, too, can face bias when it comes to being caregivers. For instance, they may receive inaccurate information about their eligibility for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), or even be denied their request to take leave. In a 2002 case, a male maintenance worker had taken FMLA leave to care for his sick parents and was later terminated by his employer. He was awarded an $11.65 million verdict, although the case later settled before an appeal for an undisclosed amount. In a 2001 case, a male state trooper was denied FMLA leave to care for his newborn child and recovering wife. He was awarded $665,000 in damages, which were later reduced.
What To Do
What should you do if you suspect you are facing bias or discrimination at work? Naturally, we cannot give you legal advice here. However, it is always a good idea to understand your legal rights. There are a lot of nonprofits and legal clinics that can provide you with information. Some of them even have Asian language helplines. The Center for Worklife Law website is a good place to get information. Another good resource is Interfaith Worker Justice’s “Can My Boss Do That?” website which can answer general questions that workers have.
Although there is no federal law that protects caregivers as a unique class yet, there are several state and local laws that offer some protection. For instance, Alaska and DC have laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on ‘parenthood’ and family responsibilities respectively. You should also understand your rights under various statutes such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Equal Pay Act.
Another thing you can do is to consult an employment attorney. Many employment attorneys offer free brief consultations. Use websites like Findlaw and the National Employment Lawyers Association to help you find an employment attorney near you. Write down why you suspect you are facing discrimination, and explain that to the attorney. You might want to ask them what steps you can take to protect yourself. For example, some attorneys may advise their clients to contact their company’s Human Resources department to formally lodge their concerns – an important legal step because if there is no written record of the employee’s concerns, the case can be substantially weaker. As laws vary from state to state and are constantly changing, only a lawyer can provide you with specific advice pertaining to your situation.
Family or Job?
At the end of the day, both family and earning a living are important. We should not have to be made to choose. Hence, these laws are in place to protect workers. Know your rights and protect yourself. The government may not be good at all things, but for these labor laws and employee protections, I am thankful. Have a happy Thanksgiving, everyone.