Eldercare: What Became of the 'Employee Benefit of the '90S?'

Article excerpt

Ten years ago, articles in the popular press and professional journals pointed to eldercare as a key factor for every employer interested in recruiting and retaining a productive workforce. Observers predicted that support for employees' eldercare needs would outpace the 1980s explosion of employer support for childcare benefits. Studies documented productivity losses related to eldercare. Model programs, like the intergenerational daycare center at Stride Rite Corporation, gained national attention. The oft-quoted demographic facts about the increasing the number of "very old" people and the decreasing proportion of working-age caregivers gave a sense of inevitability to employers making a bigger commitment to eldercare.

Yet, today the number of employers offering formal eldercare or work-balance benefits remains small. The most common benefit offered is resource and referral-that is, access to a counselor at a toll-free phone number or to a website providing information on services and care options. The proportion of large companies with eldercare benefits has increased from 13% to 30% over the past decade, but eldercare hasn't approached the 86% acceptance level of childcare as a component of these companies' benefits packages.

SMALL EMPLOYERS

Benefit trends among large employers tell part of the story. Only about 12% of workers in the United States are employed by large companies, those with 1,000 or more employees. Nearly half of the country's 108 million workers are employed by firms with 49 or fewer employees, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, the trend among smaller employers is to reduce, not expand, benefits. Small family businesses rarely offer eldercare services.

How many people actually use corporate eldercare benefits today? Assuming that 3% of the employees at large firms offering eldercare benefits actually use these benefits, then fewer than 100,000 Americans-a tiny portion of America's estimated 14 million employed caregivers-actually use company-sponsored eldercare. Comprehensive corporate eldercare programs, such as the one offered through AT&T's Work and Family Program, shine as beacons for others to replicate-but they remain the exception rather than the rule.

Despite slow expansion of eldercare in the 1990s, that decade did usher in important improvements for some employed caregivers. A few companies began to offer care management, a more personalized response to eldercare needs. Fannie Mae hired its own care managers. Several auto manufacturers entered into care management arrangements with vendors offering work-life services, thus fulfilling agreements signed with the United Auto Workers union.

Other progress came via legislation. In 1993, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act gave employees at companies with 50 or more workers the right to take unpaid leave without loss of their jobs or their benefits. In 2002, California enacted the nation's first comprehensive paid family leave law-funded entirely by employee contributions-and eslablished a new family temporary-disability insurance benefit to provide up to six weeks of wage replacement to workers who take time off work either to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, parent or domestic partner, or to bond with a new child. This law opened up meaningful new options for work-family balance to over 13 million employees.

VITAMINS VS. PAIN PILLS

The need to support those who must balance eldercare and work is stronger than ever. Every month, thousands more boomer-age employees feel squeezed between these responsibilities. Why, then, has the growth in eldercare benefits lagged?

Ageism is certainly a factor. American society has a cultural aversion to recognizing and and dealing with many facets of aging. The development of childcare benefits did not face this hurdle.

Some observers point to the gender gap. They argue that as long as family-friendly policies, such as eldercare, are regarded as a "women's issue," they will not receive serious attention from corporate executives, most of whom are men. …