Caregiver Discrimination

Posted May 19, 2009, at 6:48 p.m.

The number of working adults who also must care for their elderly parents will grow in the next several years. Demographers estimate that in the U.S. there are 76 million baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. As the first of them hit retirement age, the burden of caring for them, or at least helping them care for themselves, will fall heavily on their children.

A bill in the Legislature that would protect those adult children and other caregivers in the workplace is well-intentioned, but the wrong fix for a pending problem. LD 962, proposed by Rep. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, seeks to add the term “family caregiver” to Maine’s human rights law. That law protects against discrimination on the basis of race or color, sex, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, religion, age, ancestry and national origin. The law applies to the workplace, housing, credit and public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants.

Family caregivers are defined in the bill as those who provide nonmedical care for a child, parent, spouse, domestic partner or sibling.

The bill won passage in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Dill argues that people are facing discrimination in the workplace as they struggle to balance their responsibilities on the home front with those on the job. She believes the federal Family Medical Leave Act — which applies to care for a worker’s child or spouse — falls short of protecting workers in these matters.

“Family caregivers play a critical role in our communities and deserve our protection,” Rep. Dill said in a statement. “Without them, our community structure would be weaker and the cost burden on state-funded social programs would surely be higher.”

This may be true, but adding this group, which will be difficult to define, to a law as profound as the human rights bill is problematic at best. At worst, it would unfairly burden businesses and could undermine support for the other protected classes within the law.

Since caring for an elderly parent can be a 24-hour job, where would employers draw the line between what is fair and reasonable and what is taking advantage of the business? Would the law leave business owners powerless if an employee takes excessive sick time to care for a parent? Or if the employee leaves work early or arrives late on a regular basis?

Caring for elderly family is a problem much larger than the scope of LD 962. And while the bill may be seen as a small step in addressing this problem, it may in fact hinder more comprehensive efforts. Expanding the federal Family Medical Leave law would be a logical place to begin. And federal and state governments also must face the hard truth that a large, aging population is, in essence, a medical issue and must be factored into all discussions of health care finance reform and Medicare and Medicaid reform.

Rep. Dill should be applauded for raising the issue of workers caring for elderly family, even if this fix is not the right one.

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