Many working caregivers report health problems, depression, and lost time and lower productivity at work. If you’re taking care of a loved one with a breast cancer diagnosis, you may also find that you have cut back on community involvement and are spending less time with other loved ones and friends.
Working caregivers are everywhere. Some are open at work about our caregiving roles, but others keep it to themselves. Those who don’t disclose their caregiving situations may do so for personal reasons, but many keep quiet because they are concerned about repercussions at work. Working caregivers are in the position of keeping (or finding) work while meeting the constantly changing needs of the people we care for. We never know when a crisis is around the corner.
Sound familiar? Here are some ideas that will help you juggle the balancing act.
Tell the boss
While every job is unique, letting your employer know about your situation is usually a good idea. It helps him or her understand the challenges you are facing and see that you want to be a valued employee. When you speak with an HR representative or your manager, be honest — and realistic — about your options.
Change your work hours
If people you care for primarily need help in the mornings, perhaps you could work in the afternoons and evenings. Or if the people you care for mostly have medical appointments in the afternoon, perhaps you could work a split shift — mornings and evenings. You could also request a predictable hourly schedule.
Or you could ask for flexible hours. Some employers want employees to have a fixed schedule, but others are flexible as long as employees work a specified number of hours per day.
One day you may work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the next you may take your loved one to an appointment in the morning and work 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Some employers offer a one-week compressed schedule (work four longer days and take the fifth day off, for example) or a two-week compressed schedule (work nine longer days and get one day off).
If you can’t work full time but want to keep doing your job, you might propose scaling back to a part-time position with your current employer or finding part-time employment with another company.
Another option you could propose is job-sharing: Keep your current job but share it with another person, splitting the work and the pay. Some employers cross-train employees so one can easily step in when another needs time off. Your employer may provide opportunities for a “phased retirement,” in which you’d work part time for a period of time before full retirement. With these options, you’ll want to make sure you adjust your budget if you’ll have a reduced income.
Some call it “remote work” or “telework,” but telecommuting is an option that allows you to work from home or some other location, such as your loved ones’ home or another office.
Some employers offer full-time telecommuting jobs. Others allow some telecommuting time every week, or short-term telecommuting during an emergency or acute caregiving time.
Caregivers often cite telecommuting as the most helpful flexible work option. It allows them to help the people they care for with personal care or transportation to doctor appointments and then get right to work wherever they are, rather than wasting time traveling to their work site or taking more time off.
Some companies will support telecommuting with computers and other equipment; others will require you to supply your own equipment.
If you’re a long-distance caregiver and your company has a work site closer to your loved ones’ location, you might also consider a permanent or temporary transfer.
Look into taking leave
Employers offer different options for taking time off. Be sure you understand your employer’s policies. Do they offer time off specifically for caregiving?
Many caregivers devote their vacation time to caregiving. Some employers allow employees to use sick time for caring for sick family members.
Some companies provide paid or unpaid time off when an immediate family member dies. Find out more. Does the policy include your grandmother, aunt or uncle, partner or close friend? How much time will you be allowed? You may also have paid time off for personal use. Some companies allow employees to donate their unused vacation, sick or personal time to other employees who are experiencing a hardship and need paid time off.
If you need to take an extended period of time off work, your employer may offer several options. Most extended leave will be unpaid. Keep in mind that your job may be protected for a period of time but perhaps not indefinitely. Contact the U.S. Department of Labor or talk with your employer to find out if you are eligible for the Family, Medical and Leave Act, or military caregiving.
Understanding the Family and Medical Leave Act
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles certain workers to take unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks per year, without losing job security or health benefits, to care for a spouse, child or parent who has a serious health condition. FMLA does not cover leave taken to care for in-laws.
Am I eligible for FMLA leave? You are covered by FMLA if you work in the public sector, or for a company or organization that employs at least 50 people who work within 75 miles of your work site. You must have worked for that employer for at least 1,250 hours in the last 12 months — about 24 hours a week. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Family and Medical Leave Act Employee Guide can help you determine your eligibility.
How do I request FMLA leave? Notify your employer as soon as possible. If the need for leave is “foreseeable” — for instance, taking time off to care for a loved one after a scheduled surgery — 30 days’ notice is required.
What can I expect? Your employer is required by law to tell you your rights under FMLA and, if you qualify, to offer you leave. You may be asked to submit certification paperwork that includes confirmation from a health care provider of your loved one’s condition and need for care. Employers may not threaten you or make your work life difficult because you requested leave.
Do I have to use all 12 weeks consecutively? You may take the 12 weeks of leave all at once or intermittently — for example, three days twice a month when a parent is receiving chemotherapy. Generally speaking, paid time off used for caregiving leave that is also FMLA-eligible counts toward your annual 12-week entitlement.
If you have concerns and would like some legal advice, please contact Forge’s Client Services Coordinator, Janet Dees, at (205) 990-5367 or [email protected]. She can refer you to a pro bono attorney through the Bar Association.