Caring for frail elders? Not a workplace priority just yet

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2014 - 7:09 PM

That part of family responsibility got quite the cold shoulder from State Capitol lobbyists this year.

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Photo: Jeff Durham • Bay Area News Group/MCT,

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On a day when even bosses are pro-motherhood, Minnesotans can cheer new workplace protections for working mothers — and dads, too — courtesy of a bill that’s headed to Gov. Mark Dayton for signature.

Working parents are among the chief beneficiaries of the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA), the most far-reaching women’s rights legislation assembled at Minnesota’s statehouse in a quarter-century. The bipartisan bill includes longer unpaid parenting leaves after the birth or adoption of a child; reasonable workplace accommodations for pregnant and nursing employees, and the addition of “familial status” to the state Human Rights Act’s list of prohibited bases for employment discrimination. (“Familial status” in state law pertains to pregnancy and the parenting of children under age 18. Housing discrimination against such folk is already banned.)

As the landmark U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 nears its 50th birthday, you might expect that discrimination on the basis of any kind of personal status is by now the converse of motherhood on Mother’s Day. Everybody’s against it, right?

So vowed the business lobbyists at the Capitol last week — right before they asked that the “familial status” protection be stricken from the bill. And right after they succeeded in blocking the House bill’s “family caregiving” protection from inclusion in the final version.

The business lobby wasn’t alone in opposing the caregiving protection, which would have applied to workers who also look after elderly and disabled relatives. The letter that did it in was signed by city, county and school board officials, too.

“Adding a vaguely defined protected class status to a broad swath of the workforce will increase the threat of litigation whenever a public or private employee is lawfully disciplined or terminated,” the letter said. “Adding status as a family caregiver to the protected class(es) … will create an unworkable situation for public and private employers across the state, inevitably hurting employees.”

To that, Mary Ann Beers of Lake Elmo counters that the way she was treated at work when she used accrued time off to care for her dying father in 2009 was an “unworkable situation” — so much so that she resigned.

Beers worked at a large nonprofit that she declined to identify as she came to the State Capitol this year to back WESA. “I was told that I could not use my own sick time,” she said. “There was this whole perception by my manager that I wasn’t as dedicated to my job because I was doing this too. … We have a culture in which elders are second-class citizens, and by association, caregivers are thrown into that class.”

Vikki Casey Steward of Eden Prairie was part of the AARP contingent backing the Women’s Economic Security Act. She said that at the pharmaceutical company where she worked for 20 years, “you learned not to talk about issues with children, or issues with parents, because biases existed.” Workers known to be caregivers were subjected to extra scrutiny.

That’s a shame, Casey Steward said, because for most adults, caregiving is “an intermittent piece of our lives. And it’s a privilege.” That’s how she felt about helping her aging father through his final illness.

WESA advocates stressed that the Human Rights Act provisions they backed would bestow no special privileges. Outlawing discrimination does not provide a pass to go home early or come in late or shoulder a lighter workload. Poor performance would still be grounds for discipline.

But the new “familial status” language would bar what feminists call the “motherhood penalty.” That’s a documented lag in the earnings of mothers compared with men and childless women, one that cannot be explained by differences in education, experience or hours worked.

In a paper last year, sociologist Shelley Correll of Stanford University reported that a “perceived lack of commitment to paid work leads to a bias against mothers.” Further, working moms who go the extra mile at work to compensate (who “lean in,” as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg advised in her much-discussed 2013 book) risk being judged “less warm and less likable.” Such women “violate gendered expectations that mothers should prioritize family.” Only fathers who “lean in” to their families experience similar ill effects at work, she said.

Today’s hunch, part one: If motherhood researchers like Correll studied caregivers, they’d find a similar pattern, especially among women workers.

Part two: The caregiving issue may be dead for this year at the Capitol. But it will be back.

An aging population poses a question that’s been unanswered since women in big numbers went to work 40 years ago: How can a society in which nearly every able-bodied 25- to 65-year-old is employed also meet the needs of its frail elders?

For the elders, the answer cannot be expensive institutional care. Not as the baby boomers reach their dotage. There are too many of them — er, us. Their own retirement resources look likely to be too meager. The ability and willingness of taxpayers to be their financial backstop are limited.

More family caregiving is a more affordable and humane answer. But that ought not result in a surge in early retirements or an income penalty for caregivers. Keeping people productive — and taxpaying — as long as they are able is good for them and good for the economy.

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