Sunday, August 28, 2011

Helping Working Caregivers to Legally Expand the Definition of Family

Denise M. Brown, founder of, caregiver advocate and my good friend was recently quoted in a New York Times article addressing the challenges of caregiving while working. As a caregiver who is both an employee and a manager, I have a bit of a unique perspective about caregiving while working. While caring for my brother, I manage a law firm but also have several employees who are or have been a caregiver to a family member.

As a manager, I am personally very supportive of my employees when they have these situations and work with them so they know how important they are to our firm but also so they don't stress about not being at work while handling caregiving duties. It may sometimes involve me running a little interference between the partners (my bosses) and the staff member but it is worth it. I have talented people working for me and I like to think we can work together to come up with a solution that works for both the business and the employee.

I feel lucky that my position can be somewhat flexible because I can bring work home or work on a weekend if I have to miss a few hours for Robert's doctor appointments or take a day off to move him (or meet with his care facility). As Denise suggests in a related post, I keep the partners who "need to know" in the know about my situation and they have been very supportive and understanding.

One of the issues I've run across as an employee is being able to take sick time to care for my brother. The definition of "family" under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) includes caring for parents, children or a spouse. Siblings and grandparents are excluded at this time and many employers (including mine) follow the FMLA and CFRA definition for our sick time rules. Since I began caring for Robert, I've had to take vacation days to handle Robert’s doctor appointments, helmet fittings, emergency room visits as well as the time spent placing Robert in a care facility and all that entails (which adds up to a lot of hours!). So while my bank of sick time is maxed out (because I rarely take a sick day), I have exhausted much of my vacation time (and not because I take a lot of long vacations).

Only recently was I actually able to work something out with my employer so that I will now be allowed to take sick days when caring for Robert but it took a lot of effort and was only changed because I met some very specific requirements necessary to do so (one of which is being employed with them for so darn long.). I appreciate this change but I cannot get those vacation days back from the last few years of caring for Robert.

However, I am one of the lucky ones – many times people have to take time off without pay and do not have their job protected in order to care for a family member not currently included in the FMLA and CFRA definition of family.

Several times, the California legislature has passed legislation to expand the definition of family under CFRA and several times it was vetoed (ugh - thanks, Arnold!). Sandre Swanson (D-16) is trying again and has introduced AB-59. The California Work and Family Coalition has prepared a sample letter of support to send to Assemblymember Swanson. It may be too late for this to get passed this year (in May it was “held under submission” which doesn’t sound promising) but if we push, perhaps we can get momentum going for it next year. Please help to get this expanded definition of family through the legislature and finally signed into law.

We (as in caregivers and reasonable people) already know what family means but we need to help the legislature properly and legally define it in order to expand protection for the millions of working caregivers.

I appreciate your help in this endeavor!


Heidi Alberti & Atticus Uncensored said...

I'm totally with you on this Trish! You are fortunate to have a workplace that understands your situation and is (somewhat) accommodating.

I'll definitely send an email. Are there any petitions around this too?

I have no doubt with your efforts the definition of family will be changed

Heidi & Atticus
"commentary to give you paws..."

Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more. My partner, Jon, has suffered with a seizure disorder for years and for many of those years I was a working caregiver. It is challenging to say the least. Anything that will help make it easier is great by me! Email will be on it's way ASAP.

Bill Austin Howe

Unknown said...

Hello Trish,

Thank you for this important post. We would like to cross-post your blog on the California Work & Family Coalition's website. Please contact me at if this is okay with you.

Also, please "like" our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter to stay connected with our campaigns.

Thank you again!

Vibhuti Mehra
Labor Project for Working Families

Trish Hughes Kreis said...

Thank you, Vibhuti, for cross-posting this article! I have liked your FB page and will start following you on Twitter. Can't wait to help do what I can to get this pushed through!

Trish Hughes Kreis said...

Bill, I really appreciate your support. CFRA (California) includes registered domestic partners in their definition of family but FMLA (federal) does not. FMLA has made a recent change to cover caring for the children of a domestic partner, however, that does not go far enough in my opinion and believe FMLA should include protection for domestic partners caring for each other. It's very frustrating but hopefully, we can make some progress. Thanks again for the support!

Trish Hughes Kreis said...

Heidi, Thank you for always being so supportive! I'll let you know if there is a petition or if there's something else we can be doing. I've sent an email to Assemblymember Swanson and hope to hear back soon.

Judy, The Reflective Writer said...

I'm taken by surprise that siblings are excluded, Trish, given that aging parents often turn to siblings to pick up the charge of caring for a disabled family member. I was the caretaker for an aunt, which people definitely saw as unusual. My aunt had no children, and she was the only sister of my father. He had helped care for her all his life, and then the baton passed to me. Fortunately, I wasn't dealing with legalities, and the laws I did have to deal with ended up working o.k.

I should think that the level of caregiving you are doing should count for something in modifying the law. Thanks for letting us know about this, and keep us apprised if there's anything more we can do.

Judy Stone-Goldman
The Reflective Writer
Personal-Professional Balance Through Writing

Trish Hughes Kreis said...

Judy, Good to have you back but hope you had a nice time away! The law definitely needs some help in defining who constitutes a caregiver. I love how you share your caregiving stories in your comments -- I am enjoying learning more about you. Uou are so kind to have picked up the baton for your dad in caring for your aunt.

June Sockol said...

Let us know if you have any petitions. By supporting each other, we can make a difference!

I'm glad your job is willing to work with you. When my teen was being diagnosed with ADHD in the first grade, I had to take a lot of time off to go to school and various doctor appts. Even though he was my son, I got lectured by my boss for using my sick days on my child. I couldn't imagine how bad it would have been if it was a different family member.

Trish Hughes Kreis said...

June, I'm so sorry you had that experience. Now, you are allowed to take at least half your sick time to care for a sick child. However, it's unfortunate that some employers will make things difficult for the employee no matter what the law says. Many times, employers are not aware of these rules -- there are many and it can be cumbersome! No excuse for giving you a hard time. When a child is sick the situation is difficult enough without the added pressure from the employer. My rant for the day! :-)

Anyway, thanks for your support. It looks like the bill is not going anywhere this year so we'll have to start fresh next year. I'll keep you informed as to how you can help. Thanks and take care!

Franziska San Pedro said...

Hi Trish,

I find it very hard to understand this culture in so many ways and it feels weird (to me) that there are no laws for people caring for others whether it's a brother or even a friend or anyone.

You know that I am from Germany (I don't want to be the person who keeps on saying "but in my country we do it this way..", but I always thought it was a given to help others and get support from authorities. I am living in a foreign country, so I have to learn that things are different, so forgive me nagging).
Ok let me explain, when you decide to take care of someone, you get financial support by the government and extra free-time from your employer (in Germany). You can even take a year off and your employer will have to keep your position when you return. The price is that the society pays for that (up to 50% tax), but everyone gets 32 days vacation, plus weekends, plus holidays and more, sick pay, retirement, medical, unemployment money, etc... So it's a society that is built to help one another, it's not socialism but it's a social system (many people don't get the difference).

But I understand that this kind of safety net can't be implemented here because the US has a very different history and background. Therefore, tax is low and there are only few laws regulating -which gives employers a lot of freedom. But because of this, I think it's the employers responsibility to help you as much as possible to make it easier for you. You are doing such an incredible job and you are making this society a better one because you truly care and you are there for others.

So if you need any help signing a petition or making my voice heard, I am definitely in! Keep us posted on what we can do.

Franziska San Pedro
The Abstract Impressionist Artress

..I love the support from California Work & Family Coalitions -how did they find you? Awesome!

Anonymous said...

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Caregiving Services In Hillsborough County