Aiming to defeat caregiver stereotypes

Posted May 26, 2009, at 7 p.m.

The Bangor Daily News recently editorialized on a bill pending in the Maine Legislature — LD 962, An Act to Protect Family Caregivers, “Caregiver Discrimination” (BDN, May 20). This bill adds family caregiver as a category protected from employment discrimination under the Maine Human Rights Act and is supported by more than 17 statewide organizations including the American Cancer Society, the Disability Rights Center, the League of Young Voters, Legal Services for the Elderly, Maine Children’s Alliance, Maine Women’s Lobby, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

We wish to clarify some errors in the editorial. First, while the Maine Human Rights Act applies to the workplace, housing, credit and public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants, LD 962 pertains only to employment.

Second, the editorial suggests that employers will be mandated to grant special accommodations to caregivers under the proposed legislation. This is incorrect. The bill as amended states: “This Act may not be construed to create a right to accommodation for family caregivers.” Caregivers have to perform all aspects of their job just like everybody else.

This bill seeks to ensure that workers who care for their family members are not discriminated against when seeking employment. To quote the First Circuit Court of Appeals, “the essence of employment discrimination is penalizing a worker not for something she did, but for something she is.”

Under current state law, valuable family service providers are not afforded any protection against caregiver discrimination, and federal laws, such as the Family Medical Leave Act, fall woefully short in protecting nonmedical caregiver responsibilities. The Maine Human Rights Act currently protects employees from employment discrimination based on race or color, sex, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, religion, age, ancestry or national origin. It does not protect workers from discrimination based on family caregiver responsibilities. LD 962 seeks to change that.

Unlike the newspaper’s assertion, this bill does not seek to grant caregivers special rights or accommodations, but only to protect them against adverse actions based on stereotypes. LD 962 places no additional burdens on businesses and does not ask employers to grant extra leave time for employees who are family caregivers. An employee who takes unauthorized time off from work to care for a family member could not seek protection under this bill.

For example, an employer could not fire an employee because the employee has an elderly mother or a child with autism. An employer could fire an employee, however, because the care the employee is providing a parent or child negatively affects the employee’s work performance.

Clarifying Maine law will make it easier for employees and employers to know the rules, reduce litigation and increase productivity. This clarification will enable Maine people to make a living, care for their families and achieve their goals.

Finally, it is important to remember that one of this great nation’s founding principles is that we are all created equal under the law and deserve the chance to pursue our own version of happiness. This was written in our Constitution more than 200 years ago. The Legislature is responsible for continuing to breathe life into this cornerstone of our democracy and improving upon laws to reflect progress over time. If we value family and caregiving and want a robust economy, we must acknowledge the subtle, but corrosive, stereotypes that exist in the workplace and take conservative measures to fix a defect in the free market.

The preamble to the Maine Human Rights Act dictates that we “keep continually in review all practices infringing on the basic human right to a life with dignity … so that corrective measures may, where possible, be promptly recommended.”

LD 962 is such a bill. It seeks to defeat a prevalent stereotype that unfairly penalizes caregivers in employment by bringing it out in the open, so education and preventive measures can be taken against it.

Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, represents District 121 in the Maine House of Representatives. Sara Stevens, D-Bangor, represents District 17. They serve on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

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