End Workplace Discrimination Against Family Caregivers

By Jamie Dolkas, Equal Rights Advocates

In over 22 states throughout the US, state and local laws protect family caregivers from discrimination at work.  Sadly, California is not one of these states.  After two failed attempts to include family caregivers as a protected class under the employment provisions of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), we hope that the third time’s a charm.  AB 1999, authored by Assemblymember Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), co-sponsored by Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA), and the Center for Worklife Law, would clarify that employers cannot discriminate against employees based on family caregiving responsibilities.

Family responsibilities discrimination (FRD) is discrimination against employees based on their family care obligations, and it’s on the rise.  FRD may include discrimination against pregnant workers, mothers and fathers who actively participate in child care, and workers who care for aging parents, ill or disabled spouses or other family members.  AB 1999 would impact a wide range of caregivers at all stages of life, from infant care to elder care and everything in between.

In today’s tough job market, many workers may feel especially pressured to hide their family caregiving responsibilities at work because they fear that being labeled as a caregiver may make them vulnerable to layoffs and other adverse actions.  At ERA, we see this issue come up on a near daily basis through our Advice and Counseling Hotline, a toll-free hotline where we provide callers with information about their legal rights relating to sex discrimination at work and at school.  Some of our callers have been told things like, “Work should be your number one priority, not your family.” One worker was scolded for having more than one child by a supervisor who claimed to have limited her own family size to one child so she could maintain her commitment to work.

In fact, our callers’ experiences are not uncommon. The majority of American workers have some family caregiving responsibilities outside of work.  One in four employed men and women have elder care responsibilities, nearly 50 percent of employees say they have missed work due to elder care responsibilities, and nearly one in 10 workers have caregiving responsibilities for both elders and children.  Low-income families are especially likely to feel the strain of work/life conflict because they often cannot afford to pay someone else to help with child or elder care.

Although caregiver discrimination is painfully common, no California or federal statute expressly prohibits discrimination based on family responsibilities.  As a result, most caregiver cases are brought using a patchwork of claims under federal and state anti-discrimination and leave laws.

And while FRD is not expressly prohibited in most state and in federal statutes, one study found a nearly 400% increase in the number of FRD cases filed between 1996 and 2005 as compared to the number filed in the decade prior.  The increase in family responsibilities discrimination cases indicates that employers do not yet understand their legal risks and obligations in this area.  AB 1999 would provide much needed guidance for employers by clarifying what constitutes unlawful discrimination against caregivers, and would also help workers better assert their rights by making those rights more clearly defined.

In 2007 and 2009, similar legislation was proposed attempting to add “familial status” to employment anti-discrimination protections.  In 2007, SB 836 (Kuehl) passed through both the Assembly and Senate, but was ultimately vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.  In 2009, AB 1001 (Skinner) was introduced in the State Assembly but was held in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

AB 1999 would not only benefit a wide range of caregivers who struggle daily to balance the demands of work and family, but would also greatly impact those in need of care at a time when we’re seeing record cuts to social services.  Governor Brown’s proposed FY 2012-13 budget calls for the elimination of the statewide system of Caregiver Resource Centers that have provided comprehensive support and vital services to generations of caregivers in California.

It couldn’t be a more critical time to support California caregivers.  We encourage you and your organization(s) to get involved.  For additional information about AB 1999, please contact:

Jamie Dolkas, Equal Rights Advocates Staff Attorney at jdolkas@equalrights.org; or

Mariko Yoshihara, CELA Political Director at mariko@cela.org

Jamie Dolkas is a Staff Attorney at Equal Rights Advocates.  She is a contributing author in the recently released book, Women Who Opt Out: The Debate over Working Mothers and Work-Family Balance, Edited By Bernie D. Jones (NYU Press 2012), available online at http://nyupress.org/books/book-details.aspx?bookId=5826.

If you or someone you know would like information about legal rights relating to sex discrimination at work or at school, contact Equal Rights Advocates’ Advice and Counseling Hotline at 1(800) 839-4372.


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