Lacking family leave benefits or flexible hours, many American families struggle to balance their working lives with the needs of aging relatives.
Worse, government officials say many face discrimination on the job if they try to care for an aging parent or take time off to care for a sick child or spouse.
Fewer and fewer employers make the options available to workers, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet the demand for flexible work options is soaring as boomers grow grayer. The oldest boomers are now 65, and there are 78 million more right behind them.
"In 2003, experts estimated that 44 million adults in the United States over age 18 provided support to older people and adults with disabilities who live in their communities," according to Karen Minatelli, director of Work and Family Programs, National Partnership for Women and Families.
"They need job supports today, and even more workers will need them in the future, because so many adults are in the workforce and because people are living longer and with more chronic conditions. Nearly 58 million working-age adults reported having at least one of seven major chronic conditions in 2006 – an increase of 25 percent from 1997," she said.
And companies may face discrimination claims if they withhold jobs or promotions based on legitimate caregiving needs.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is warning employers on how best to avoid discrimination claims by workers with caregiving responsibilities.
Today, roughly 65 percent of families have two working parents or are headed by a single working parent, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. By contrast, in the 1960s about 70 percent of families had one parent at home to care for children or elderly parents.
Nearly one in four employed men and women have eldercare responsibilities, according to the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care.
"The poor economy and lack of job creation means that families will need to ensure that they do what they can to keep parents working," said Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. "The impact of family responsibility discrimination on family well-being is potentially more devastating than ever before."
She noted that men have lost four out of five jobs during this recession, leaving working mothers as many families' sole breadwinners. This leaves families dependent on women's earnings, which are typically lower than men's.
To avoid discrimination against these workers, and enhance worker retention and recruitment, employers should avoid stereotypes or biases about caregiving, according to the EEOC.
The best practices guidance warned not to assume that female workers' caretaking will interfere with their success at work, or that those who work part time to handle family caretaking chores are less committed to their jobs.
The EEOC also warned against assume men don't have significant caregiving responsiblity, or that women workers prefer to spend time with their families rather than work.
Employers should also respond quickly to complaints of caregiver discrimination by investigating the claims promptly and taking corrective action if necessary.
The employer should also provide clear assurances that retaliation will not be tolerated against those who make complaints of unfair treatment.
The guidance also encourages employers to allow use of sick leave for caregiving responsibilities.