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If you’re a caregiver for a wounded, ill or injured service member, you should be aware of a growing issue: family responsibility discrimination in the workplace.
Taking care of service members is truly a labor of love — but also a huge responsibility. When the caregiver also has a job, that only adds to the stress load. Yet it’s important for the caregiver’s personal well-being and growth, as well as the family’s financial situation.
While many employers are supportive of their caregiver employees, some may knowingly or unknowingly discriminate, according to a recent webinar for military caregivers, part of a partnership with the Easter Seals Dixon Center and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, designed to provide military caregivers with the resources they need to thrive.
According to the Rand Corp., 63 percent of the 1 million caregivers of troops who have served after 9/11 are employed.
Among them is Virginia Peacock, who left her nursing position after her husband, David, an Air Force medevac and combat flight medic, began to experience mental health issues in addition to a severe shoulder injury suffered in Afghanistan.
Luckily, she said, doctors with a pediatrics practice approached her about working for them on a flexible, “as-needed” basis. She said she is “thrilled” to be doing what she loves as a nurse, working with children, with a supportive staff.
“If you’re a military caregiver, there are a lot of issues,” said Donna Wagner, associate dean for academics at New Mexico State University’s College of Health and Social Services. She has researched the intersecting issues of work and family, and provided information during the webinar and in a follow-up interview.
Most studies have focused on family responsibility discrimination related to children or aging relatives, Wagner said. Military spouses could be subject to this because of responsibilities related to caring for young children, for children with special needs and/or aging relatives. Deployments add a whole new level of family responsibilities. But with the number of troops returning from war with wounds, including invisible wounds affecting the brain, she believes caregiving concerns and related workplace issues will increase.
One example of family responsibility discrimination — and the most pervasive — is “benevolent stereotyping,” Wagner said: Supervisors make assumptions about what workers can and can’t do, based on their caregiving responsibilities, a bias that can result in job changes, lost promotions or fewer responsibilities.
“The supervisor should look at what employees do in an objective way, and not assume they can’t do what they did previously,” Wagner said.
No one is saying these employees should be given preferential treatment. They should be treated the same as other employees. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, studies have found that employers who adopt flexible workplace policies enhance employee productivity, reduce absenteeism, reduce costs, and appear to positively affect profits.
While workers with family responsibilities are not a “protected class” covered by federal law, there are several statutes that protect these workers based on their caregiving obligations, and some states — Connecticut and the District of Columbia — have laws specifically prohibiting discrimination against employees with family responsibilities, Wagner said. Other states provide some extra protections beyond the federal protections.
Wagner advises employees to:
■ Explain your situation to supervisors and co-workers as soon as possible. Tell them you’ll keep doing a good job , and will keep being a team player, despite your caregiving responsibilities.
■ Stay alert for differential treatment of yourself or of co-workers. Document dates and details.
■ Discuss issues with your supervisor or, if necessary, your supervisor’s manager. Give them information about family responsibility discrimination if you believe they aren’t informed.
Support other workers with information if differential treatment is pervasive.
■ Read up. “You don’t have to be an expert, but you need to know your rights,” Wagner said.
■ Work Life Law at www.worklifelaw.org has fact sheets, other information and a hotline.
■ List of employers’ best practices, www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/caregiver-best-practices.html.