Career Woman

5 Smart steps to approach your boss about being a family carer


Over a period of just a few weeks in 2016, online editor Richard Eisenberg faced a sudden “avalanche of medical emergencies” — including supporting his 89-year-old father through a kidney removal and helping his mother, an 84-year-old Alzheimer’s sufferer, manage increased epilepsy events. While taking an afternoon or two off to care for his parents didn’t rattle management at his online publication, the loss of days of productivity each week put his publisher dangerously behind schedule.

Eisenberg not only thrives in his job, he depends on it to support his family. When faced with the prospect of talking to his employer about taking time off to be at his father’s bedside and rush his mother to the hospital, Eisenberg took a moment to collect his thoughts.

The editor approached his boss early and directly, explaining exactly what was going on and the time he expected to miss work. Together, they came up with a solution that accommodated them both.

Is it really that simple to get your boss on board with your sudden parental care responsibilities? Well, Eisenberg had an advantage: his employer is, an online publication “where grownups keep growing.” NextAvenue targets baby boomers, and taking care of aging parents is a topic that sits smack in the middle of that audience’s needs. Needless to say, Eisenberg’s employer may have been especially sympathetic to his situation.

Most adults with aging parents struggle to balance work and attention to their parents’ health; especially when emergencies, falls, wandering, and confusion become weekly or daily events. Research from Northwestern Mutual found that most Americans consider caring for two elderly adults harder than caring for two toddlers.

Working while caring for elderly parents hits low-income employees particularly hard. These individuals often hold service jobs with varying schedules, making it inconvenient to plan visits to loved ones. If a particular job requires few complex skills, employees know (and fear) how quickly they can be replaced. AARP found that 61% of all family caregivers have experienced a job change or reduction in working hours due to caregiving responsibilities.

So, you want to keep your job but you also want to be there for your parents. How can you even begin to approach your boss about this? Let’s start with the more positive approach and assume that your employer, like Richard Eiseberg’s, is understanding and amenable to providing reasonable time off when caring for a senior parent. We’ll discuss the worst case scenario a bit later.

Steps for a productive discussion with your boss about your senior caregiving duties

First and foremost, don’t postpone this sensitive discussion. If you wait until a crisis occurs, your struggle to uphold the balancing act between work and family may emerge in a chaotic way, beyond your control. It’s best to have this conversation as soon as possible, while you have plenty of control over how you approach the topic.

Take the following steps to proactively manage your situation:

1. Understand that employers have dealt with this situation before.

You’re not the first employee to have an elderly parent with failing health — not by a long-shot. In fact, your supervisors may have even attended trainings covering this very subject. Their job, when it comes to your work-life balance, is to negotiate with you to protect the business while still giving you what you need for your wellbeing. If you are a hardworking and valuable employee, your boss likely wants to keep you around. Most managers know it’s in the company’s best interest to make slight adjustments for you, in order to support you in continuing to put your best effort into your job.

Gather the facts about your loved one’s diagnoses — this information will help you make a case to your boss for why you need to spend extra time caring for your aging family member. Your boss may have experienced similar issues in his or her family; you never know.

2. Educate yourself on the details of the “The family and medical leave act”.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 covers time off to care for senior relatives, as well as maternity and paternity leave. Before you sit down with your boss, take some time on your own to read through this act and understand what your company is obligated to give you — and what it is not obligated to give you.

You should also be aware of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has created Employer Best Practices for Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities. While the document is five years old, most employers (and the attorneys for employers and employees) still reference it. These best practices include advice for employers to not only avoid worker dissatisfaction, but to also “reduce the chance of EEO violations against caregivers” — in other words, the guidance is meant to help employers avoid a potential lawsuit for discrimination against employees with caregiving responsibilities.

3. Work with other family members to delegate senior caregiving responsibilities.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help — you shouldn’t have to take on caregiving alone. Call on any relatives who may be able to help you out, even if they can simply relieve you from care duties for one day a week (or a few times a month). If you don’t have relatives nearby who can help, consider hiring a part-time senior caregiver to ease the load of responsibilities. While there is a financial cost associated with hiring an in-home employee, many families find it worthwhile to have peace of mind knowing they can share the caretaking role with a trusted professional.

No matter how you’re splitting care, create a clear schedule, so you have the best possible idea of when you’re “on duty” with your loved one. With a predetermined schedule, you can give your boss realistic and defined expectations for how much of your time will be impacted by your caregiving duties.

4. Create possible scenarios of the outcome of your boss’s decisions.

Your forethought will reveal that you care about your role and the company.

Scenario 1: Job termination.

Many people feel hesitant to discuss sudden scheduling or family changes, for fear that their employers may see this as reason to let them go. If you want to keep the job, gently remind your boss that you know finding and training someone new for your role will be expensive, and therefore you’re willing and happy to discuss options that enable you to stay in the role. Businesses lose up to $3 billion every year when employees leave or are forced out of their jobs due to caregiving duties — so most managers have good reason to want to keep you around.

Scenario 2: Cut down to part-time temporarily.

If you’d like to move to part-time hours (or anticipate your employer will want you to), come prepared with the new schedule you think can work for you; and who can help complete some of your tasks (temps, coworkers, etc.). Have a clear date that you think you will be able to return to a full-time schedule. This approach may work well if your loved one has a long-term illness like Alzheimer’s, COPD, or heart disease.

Scenario 3: Take a period of time off completely.

Sometimes full-time, hands-on family caregiving cannot be avoided. If a loved one is going into a hospital for a procedure and will then need support during rehabilitation, this could eat up two to three weeks of your time. Sometimes seniors refuse paid care in the home, insisting on having a family member they know and trust to support them.

Scenario 4: Work from home, part-time or full-time.

In this case, the intention is generally that you will be working from “home,” wherever your loved one is. If the majority of your job can be done remotely, this can be a strategic way to get work done and be present and ready if your loved one suddenly needs assistance. Keep in mind, you will have to gauge how much you can get done with regular interruptions (remember the toddler comparison above). Will you be able make phone calls? Concentrate effectively on a long project? The best way to determine whether you can effectively manage working from home with your loved one is to try it — see if your employer will agree to a trial run for one week.

After considering these options, create a proposal for your work life going forward. Consider what would be the optimal mix of part-time, working from home, and full days off. Be ready to negotiate on each point. A written proposal can take some of the heat out of the meeting, and show that you’re committed to doing right by your company. Your boss will have time to absorb your situation, determine your most crucial tasks, and then review your points. He or she will also have the time and space to consider how your wages will change, if at all.

5. Now, fully prepared, schedule a meeting with your boss.

Go to the meeting with your offer. Make it clear that you enjoy your job, are concerned about the welfare of the company, and are invested in how your duties will be completed.

When approached in a firm yet respectful manner, this meeting can be an opportunity to convey your dedication and value, as a considerate and devoted asset to both your company and your family. In other words, it will help make you more three-dimensional to management.

For those who come prepared and with an honest and respectful attitude, talking to a boss about caregiving duties can go quite smoothly. The common nightmare of a boss leaping from a chair to shout, “you’re fired!” rarely comes to pass. In the unlikely scenario that you do lose your job due to the strains of your caregiving duties, there are a few things you should know.

You can’t fire me! …can you?

Sometimes, a manager does decide to terminate your employment. Don’t blame yourself. He or she may have been looking to downsize and this issue came up at just the right time. If you feel this decision was entirely unjustified, rest assured — U.S. law doesn’t take the whims of unreasonable managers lightly.

Recourse: The family and medical leave act

If you choose, you can hire an attorney and take your employer to court for unlawful discrimination. As mentioned above, the FMLA of 1993 puts the power behind your attorney’s efforts on your behalf. This legislation makes it clear that employers must “provide reasonable personal or sick leave to allow employees to engage in caregiving.”

Of course, attorneys make their living defining the word “reasonable.” Therefore, the burden of proving the senior care is needed — or even critical — lies with you, the employee. That means it’s crucial to save emergency room reports, health care plan documents, and more. Documentation ensures your reputability and makes your case stronger in front of a judge. Also, most attorneys get their fees from the employer for wrongful termination, should the plaintiff (employee) win.

Remember the EEOC’s “Employer Best Practices for Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities” we mentioned above? This document comes in very handy if you’re questioning whether you have a solid case against your employer. It provides guidelines for employers to avoid potential lawsuits, based on the legal stipulations set forth in the FMLA.

The document explains that smart (lawsuit avoidant) employers must:   

  • “Permit employees to use sick leave to care for family members who are ill and/or to handle medical emergencies involving family members.
  • Engage in dialogue with employees to determine the amount of leave that is appropriate and acceptable based on their workload, upcoming deadlines and personal circumstances.
  • Ensure that leave policies exist and are available to male and female employees on an equal basis. Train managers to ensure that both male and female employees are aware of leave policies and are not implicitly or explicitly discouraged from requesting leave.
  • To the extent feasible, permit employees to take leave with little notice in case of an emergency and to use leave in short increments, rather than full days or weeks.”

Refer to this document if you have any concerns, or ask your attorney to review it with you. Some of the tenets listed there may pertain to your exact situation.

You’re not alone – use all the resources at your disposal

Most of all, remember that you’re not alone in this balancing act. In the introduction to his 2013 budget, then-President Barak Obama reminded us all that “too many American workers must make the painful choice between the care of their families and the paycheck they desperately need.” There are resources to help you determine how to be both a supportive family member and a conscientious employee.

About Kathleen Webb

Kathleen Webb co-founded HomeWork Solutions in 1993 to provide payroll and tax services to families employing household workers. Kathy has extensive experience preparing ‘nanny tax’ payroll taxes. She is the author of numerous articles on this topic and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, and the Congressional Quarterly. She also consulted with Senate staffers in the drafting of the 1994 Nanny Tax Law.

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