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Caregiver Bias in Employment

Today, it is commonplace for workers to handle both work and caregiving responsibilities for spouses and children, parents and other older family members, or relatives with disabilities. Women still are disproportionately more likely to exercise primary caregiving responsibilities but, in increasing numbers, men also have assumed the dual roles of caretaker and breadwinner.

Our society may be evolving toward more individuals simultaneously sharing the duties of an employee and a caregiver, but old stereotypes in the workplace sometimes die hard. The result is a steady rise in claims of employment discrimination based on what is sometimes called “family responsibility discrimination.” You would search in vain for a federal law that expressly prohibits discrimination at work against caregivers, but complaining employees have been able to pursue claims under other employment discrimination statutes, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The cases brought under Title VII tend to allege sex discrimination or gender stereotyping. A classic example is the pregnant woman who is let go or passed over for a promotion because the employer’s decisionmaker assumes that with the baby will come a diminished commitment to the employer and a failure by the employee to meet all of the obligations of her job. Such was the case in a recent litigation in which a mother of triplets was denied a promotion because, in the employer’s words to her, “you have a lot on your plate right now.” When a federal appellate court reinstated the lawsuit after its dismissal by the trial court, the employer likely came to the belated conclusion that it should concern itself only with the employer’s portion of the employee’s “plate.”

The ADA can come into play as a vehicle for caregiver discrimination claims because the phrase “discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability” in the statute includes “excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association.”

The FMLA may be the existing federal statute that by its terms most directly addresses caregiver rights in employment, but it affords employees more restricted protection than do Title VII and the ADA. The FMLA provides that covered employers (private-sector employers with at least 50 employees in a 75-mile radius) must provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave during a 12-month period to eligible employees (those who have worked for the employer for at least 12 months or 1,250 hours) for childbirth and newborn care, adoption or foster care placement, care for immediate family members with a serious health condition, or to handle the employee’s own serious health condition.

In its recently published guide to the best practices for employers on this subject, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) touts the benefits and advantages of employers adopting flexible workplace policies that help employees achieve a satisfactory work-life balance. According to the EEOC, employers taking that approach may not only experience decreased complaints of unlawful discrimination but, according to many studies, may also benefit their workers, their customer base, and even their financial picture. Flexible workplace policies also aid recruitment and retention efforts, helping employers to keep a talented, knowledgeable workforce and save the money and time that would otherwise have been spent recruiting, interviewing, selecting, and training new employees.

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