Crisis shines light on caregiving benefits

Employers were already increasingly looking to meet the needs of caregiving employees.
By: | April 10, 2020 • 10 min read
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to make headlines around the world, Motiva Enterprises, LLC, responded by offering 14 days of paid leave not only for employees who were sickened by the coronavirus but also for those who have to care for a family member or for a child who can’t go to school.

“It gives people peace of mind,” says Dennis Fox, director of compensation, benefits and recruiting for the Houston-based petroleum company.

The extra leave comes on top of the company’s standard sick-leave policy, as well as its backup caregiving benefit, which provides employees with up to 80 hours of care for children or adults at home or at care centers. Employees pay just $4 an hour for care, and Motiva picks up the rest, Fox says.

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Although COVID-19 has temporarily closed care centers, employees can still have pre-screened caregivers come to their home, he says. “People are trying to figure out the new normal. We saw an uptick in usage.”

The pandemic is creating both uncertainty and a new normal for employees around the world, and caregiving has taken on increasing prominence.

A March survey of more than 250 employers by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions found almost 60% of respondents were offering unpaid family leave and more than 45% were offering paid family leave to employees with caregiving responsibilities.

“The caregiver burden is something that employers are recognizing,” says Michael Thompson, the alliance’s president and CEO.

Caregiving Leave Limited

A February survey of 113 large employers by the Business Group on Health found 35% of respondents offer paid caregiving-leave benefits, and 28% more were considering adding such a benefit by 2022.

For roughly 40% of companies, the benefit is also available if an employee is caring for a sibling, grandparent, or parent of a spouse or domestic partner.

Offering a paid caregiving benefit “serves as a differentiator” for employers, says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the Business Group on Health.

Especially now, employers are realizing that employees’ “wellbeing doesn’t just depend on their physical health, but also on their mental and emotional health,” Heinen says, and caregiving can place a heavy burden on the person providing the care.

The benefit was a major blessing for Deloitte senior consultant Brendan Ricci after his mother was diagnosed with cancer last year. He put his work on hold and moved back home to help his father care for his mother during her final months.

Because the consultancy offers its employees up to 16 weeks of paid caregiving leave each year, “being able to completely put work aside and focus on family and make the most of the time that was left with her was extremely powerful,” says the 30-year-old Washington, D.C., resident.

Brendan Ricci

His sister and her family also moved back to the family’s New Jersey home to help care for their mother, Margie. “It meant a lot to my mom to be together as a family for her final weeks,” says Ricci, who even got married at his mother’s bedside during that time.

An increasing number of employees are pressed for time as they care for parents, children, spouses or other family members while also trying to maintain their careers.

An AARP survey found there were about 41 million family caregivers in the U.S. in 2017, providing about 34 billion hours of unpaid care for other adults. The economic value of their efforts was estimated at $470 billion.

Of those who are caregivers, 60% also work. On top of their jobs, they provide an average of 20 hours of care each week, says Amy Goyer, AARP’s expert on families and caregiving. “Caregivers are stretched in a lot of different directions,” she says. “This is like another part-time job.”

While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows many employees to take off up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year without risk of losing their jobs, it doesn’t provide any financial assistance for employees.

In response to the pandemic, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires businesses with between 50 and 500 employees to provide up to 80 hours of sick leave at two-thirds of regular pay for employees who must care for someone under quarantine or to care for a child whose school or childcare facility is closed. It also includes an additional 10 weeks of leave at two-thirds of pay for those whose child’s school or childcare provider is closed. Pay is capped at $200 per day, says Pete Frattarelli, a New Jersey attorney who is chair of the labor and employment group at Archer & Greiner.

Increasing Demands on Caregivers

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the only shift prompting increased attention to caregiving. As baby boomers continue to age, “more and more people are going to be in caregiving roles,” and the demands on caregivers will span all generations, says Goyer, author of the book Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving.

Already, 35% of those 40 and under have provided care for a family member or friend, according to AARP.

“It’s a misperception to think millennials don’t have caregiving roles,” Heinen says.

For Ricci, who was 29 when his mother died, “having the flexibility to be able to step away from work made all the difference in the world.”

Jen Fisher

Deloitte began offering expanded benefits for caregivers in 2018, says Chief Wellbeing Officer Jen Fisher. The policy allowed for paid time off for caregiving for immediate family members. Employees can take the entire 16 weeks off at one time, or in increments as short as three days off at a time.

“That’s the nature of caregiving,” Fisher says. “Oftentimes, if someone is sick or you have an aging parent, you don’t need large chunks of time all at once.”

Because many employees are members of the sandwich generation, “they’re feeling it from both sides,” she says. “Employees really look to employers to care about them way beyond what they can produce at work.”

By offering paid time off for caregiving, “it prevents people from feeling like they are forced to give up vacation or other personal time,” Fisher says.

GuideWell, the parent company of the health insurer Florida Blue, introduced two weeks of paid caregiver leave at the start of 2020. “It fits perfectly with our mission as a company to take care of our workforce and for our workforce to take care of our members,” says Amy Ruth, GuideWell’s chief human resource officer.

The idea for paid time off for caregivers came from GuideWell employees, Ruth says. “We always start with listening to our workforce and being responsive to their needs.”

The company allows employees to use the leave however they see fit. That means one employee might take the entire two weeks off at one time, while another might take off two hours at a time to take a sick spouse to medical appointments. “We don’t want to structure it in a way that makes it hard to use,” Ruth says.

In the first month the policy was in place, about a dozen employees made use of the paid caregiver benefit.

Related: The new reality of remote work and caregiving

One of those is Kristin Molina, an instructional designer who has worked for GuideWell for about four years. When her teenage son had a health crisis this year, “I knew it needed my full-time attention and focus,” she says.

As a single parent, Molina was concerned about the financial impact of taking time off from work. She talked to her supervisor, who told her about GuideWell’s paid caregiver benefit. “I instantly felt relief,” Molina says.

Having two weeks off to help her son “was a good way to get a grasp on the situation and stabilize it to the place we needed to be,” she says.

Now she takes paid time off or FMLA as needed to assist her son. Having the caregiving benefit “reaffirms GuideWell is a great place to work. It’s one big family.”

“It’s a chance for the organization to support team members at a time when life might feel overwhelming,” Ruth says.

Bristol-Myers Squibb has provided paid and unpaid caregiving leave since 2018, says Ann Powell, the company’s chief human resources officer. From the day they start working at the pharmaceutical company, employees are eligible for the benefit. It applies when caring for immediate family members, including domestic partners.

Employees are eligible for up to eight weeks of paid leave, along with 18 weeks of unpaid leave each year. The policy provides “an opportunity to address what’s important” to employees, Powell says. It allows employees the chance to take time away as needed, without having to worry if they have a job at the end of the leave, she says.

Bristol-Myers Squibb has about 11,000 employees in the United States, and several hundred have made use of the leave so far.

For a company to be successful, it “has to be flexible,” Powell says. “Every single individual is impacted by things that happen personally and professionally.”

However, even if a company has the best caregiving benefits in place, it needs to be sure employees feel comfortable asking for the time off to make use of it, Fisher says. “Without having the right culture in place for people to feel like they can take advantage of it,” she says, “often it goes underutilized.”

Companies Benefit

If a company isn’t in a position to provide paid leave for caregivers, it may consider offering flexible work schedules, the opportunity to work from home or a compressed work week to help accommodate the scheduling needs of caregivers, Goyer says.

Other options might be allowing an employee to work part time, or providing job-sharing opportunities, she says. If a large company has multiple locations, and the caregiver and ill family member live in different places, the organization could consider allowing the caregiver to transfer to another location closer to the family member in order to make it easier to provide care.

AARP found that every $1 an employer spends on flexible benefits results in a return of between $1.70 and $4.30, Goyer says.

Also see: 10 benefits to bet on

Some employers are providing free or subsidized access to services such as Wellthy and Care.com. Such services can offer caregiving coordination and support, such as providing information on rehabilitation facilities or offering backup care for children or adults, Heinen says.

For most caregivers, “we’re all reinventing the wheel and taking a lot of time doing it.” Such services can help streamline the time needed to locate and vet services, she says.

If employees are worrying about things such as finding an assisted-living facility for an aging parent, “you’re not fully present and productive,” Heinen says.

In fact, a study last year by Harvard Business School found that three-quarters of employees have some caregiving responsibilities, and 80% admit caregiving impacts their productivity at work.

About one-third of employees surveyed said they have left their job because of caregiving, including half of employees between the ages of 26 and 35, and more than one-quarter of those between 18 and 25, the Harvard study found.

The Harvard survey also found managers and senior leaders across all age groups were more likely to have left an organization because of caregiving responsibilities.

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That, in turn, results in higher turnover costs and lost institutional knowledge.

Having a paid caregiving benefit can help companies retain talent in a tight labor market.

“Losing trained and capable people is a big risk,” Heinen says.

“There’s tremendous anxiety and stress around being a caregiver,” says Tom Parry, president of the Integrated Benefits Institute.

If employees have to miss work as a result, it may mean their workloads are shifted to other employees, ratcheting up their co-workers’ stress as well, Parry says.

Offering paid caregiving leave is one way to help reduce their stress and relieve some of the financial burden.

If companies “support employees in their personal life, it helps the employees be healthier, more productive workers,” Parry says.

It’s important for employees to feel comfortable talking about what they are going through as caregivers, Goyer says.

Supporting caregivers fuels employees’ job satisfaction and engagement, and they may also recruit others to work for the company, Goyer says.

And it helps companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb retain talent. “It’s expensive to replace and hard to attract certain skill sets,” Powell says. By having paid caregiving leave, “it provides them with peace of mind.”