Leave Act only modest help for workers giving elder care

Up to 40 percent of American workers, it's estimated, will have to help care for an older person within the next five years. Many may have to - or want to - take time off work to meet those obligations. You might think the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act would be a big help, but for all its good intentions, the act may be of little use to many workers.

The act allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to recover from their own illness, to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, or to tend to a sick family member, including an elderly parent.

The law guarantees that employees will have continued health benefits during leave and a job upon their return. It covers all public sector employees and private businesses with 50 or more employees.

That means nearly half of the private sector workforce - those whose employers have fewer than 50 employees - are not covered.

In addition, the fact that the guaranteed leave is unpaid means that many workers who would like to take the time off can't afford to.

Today, seven to 12 percent of workers are caring for an older person. Dana Friedman, co-president of the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research firm in New York, projects that figure may rise to 40 percent within the next five years. A sizable majority of caregivers will be women.

In its first report to Congress on the effectiveness of the new law, the Commission on Family and Medical Leave said more than two-thirds of employees surveyed agree that all workers should be entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a year for family and medical problems.

The actual use of the new law, however, was fairly low - about 2 percent of eligible employees, according to the report.

Somewhere between 1.5 million and just over 3 million workers are estimated to have taken leave under the new law for a variety of family and personal medical reasons since its enactment, the report said.

One provision of the law says leave can be taken intermittently in hours or days, rather than all at once. This arrangement can be particularly helpful to a worker with an ill parent who may not need whole days or weeks but must leave work periodically to take a parent to the doctor or meet other medical needs.

Overall, the commission offered a positive assessment of the Family and Medical Leave Act. The report termed it a first step in standardizing workplace procedures to allow "a larger cross-section of working Americans to meet their medical and family caregiving needs while still maintaining their jobs and economic security."

But the fact that leave mandated by the act is unpaid is a major stumbling block to some workers who would like to take time off but can't afford to.

The commission estimated that 3.4 percent of covered employees felt they needed leave, but did not take it. For nearly two-thirds of those workers, the reason was that they could not afford the loss of wages.

The commission said a majority of companies reported few new costs associated with administering the leave act. Some firms even indicated positive results in the form of increased productivity and lower worker turnover.

While the federal government has tried to set the tone for more family-friendly workplace policies with the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, real innovations will be up to the business community.

Some forward-thinking companies, recognizing the impact that caregiving stress can have on worker productivity, have taken steps to help their employees cope. NYNEX, the regional phone company in New England and New York, is one example. Texas Instruments and Kodak are others.

According to several human resources experts, the most useful benefits to employees with caregiving responsibilities are flexible work schedules and information and referral services.

Those lucky enough to work for more innovative companies are benefiting from such assistance. But for many, elder care is a juggling act that can become simply too hard to manage, particularly as adult daughters and daughters-in-law, who traditionally provided care for the elderly, are increasingly working outside the home.

Two trends - an aging population and increasing participation of women in the workforce - mean the pressure will only get worse.

"Eldercare is a tidal wave issue that companies and society have not yet dealt with," Friedman of the Families and Work Institute observed.

In the meantime, take time to learn your rights under the law. For a free copy of "The Family and Medical Leave Act: What It Means for Caregivers in the Workplace," write to the American Association of Retired Persons, Fulfillment, 601 E Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20049 and request publication D15407.