Family caregiver bias claims have sharply risen in recent years. This type of claim has increased by 400% during the past decade. A big reason is that younger men and women entering the workforce expect to spend more time with their families and less time in the office.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidelines addressing this issue. Although the agency emphasized that it didn’t intend to create a new category of protected workers, it did provide 20 examples of caregiver (also known as family responsibilities) discrimination. The examples address everything from stereotyping during the hiring process to the hostile work environment that can result from stereotyping mothers or fathers. These guidelines signal the commission will be more aggressive in investigating these claims.
The most common example of caregiver discrimination occurs when a women either informs her employer she is pregnant or gives birth to a child, and then finds her workload and responsibilities decreased – commonly referred to as being put on the “Mommy track.” This happens because employers wrongly assume that a pregnant woman or new mother is no longer devoted to her work. Men who file these claims usually make the opposite argument – that they faced discrimination against for not following gender stereotypes. For example, a father might take some time off work to care for his children, and when he returns he is put on rotating shifts so he can never set up regular child care, forcing him to quit.
A caregiver or family responsibilities claim must be tied to another type of discrimination because “caregiver” is not a protected class of worker. Instead, workers must rely on such laws as the Americans with Disabilities Act (for example, needing time off to care for a disabled child) or Title VII (perhaps tying the claim to gender discrimination). Claimants can also use a variety of state law claims, including state equivalents to the federal discrimination statutes, and common law claims such as wrongful discharge, breach of contract, or intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A handful of states have enacted laws that address caregiver discrimination. The District of Columbia, for example, has an ordinance protecting workers from family responsibilities discrimination, and similar legislation is pending in California. In Alaska, a more limited statute protects workers from discrimination based on parental status. A similar executive order covers federal workers and contractors.
Employer training is the key to reducing family responsibilities discrimination and lawsuits. The commission’s new guidelines make it clear that employers must focus on the job, not family or kids. Employers are advised to avoid those issues and stick to the job description, both in interviews and in conversations. Employers shouldn’t assume a female employee can’t handle the demands of motherhood and a full-time job.