Caring for Aging Parents Can Damage Careers

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The number of Americans who are working two jobs to support their families has been growing steadily. In October 2023, 8.4 million Americans had multiple jobs. By January 2024, that number increased to 8.7 million. 

The trend to hold multiple jobs does not appear to be abating. About 5.1% of American workers held more than one job at the beginning of 2024. That percentage increased to 5.2% in March and has held steady since then. 

Women are leading the trend to work more than one job. In October 2023, about 6% of women worked multiple jobs, compared to 4.7% of men.

Working more than one job can be exhausting, but the burden is even greater when the second job is unpaid. Some children who take care of aging parents work three jobs — their primary job, a part-time or “gig economy” job to earn extra income, and their unpaid work as a family caregiver. 

The Financial Impact of Caregiving

While many Americans work a second job to earn an economic benefit, family caregivers typically provide services to an older or disabled family member without compensation. Caring for a parent can require the same commitment as a second job. While family caregivers spend an average of 24.4 hours per week taking care of an older adult, nearly a quarter provide care for 41 hours or more each week. 

Just as women are more likely than men to hold a second paid job, they devote substantially more time than men to serving as unpaid caregivers for family members. While women have long struggled with financial insecurity, their disproportionate role as family caregivers has only contributed to that struggle.

A June, 2024 Wall Street Journal article explored the impact of caregiving on careers. Caregivers may be required to turn down promotions that will require a greater investment of time. They might not want to accept salaried positions that demand 50-hour weeks because employers are less likely to demand overtime hours from hourly wage workers. When an employer does not offer a “work from home” option, caregivers might move to a new job (sacrificing accrued benefits and seniority) and accept less pay for greater flexibility.

Full-time employment may come with vacation time and sick leave, but caregivers typically exhaust those benefits and take unpaid time off to meet a parent’s needs. Companies typically fire employees who miss too much work. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects workers who take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for a relative who has a serious health condition, but that law only applies to companies that have at least 50 employees working in the same geographic area as the caregiver.

Solving the Problem

An ongoing labor shortage may encourage smaller businesses to adopt policies that will help them retain experienced employees who act as family caregivers. Flexible leave options, the ability to work from home, and extra pay to cover respite care might keep caregivers from looking for a job that better meets their needs.

Unfortunately, many employers shy away from hiring caregivers. As the Wall Street Journal reports, employers “might assume that a worker who is also caregiving will be distracted, or won’t meet deadlines, or will have to leave unexpectedly for an undetermined amount of time.” Unless an employer is covered by (and violates) the FMLA, private employers are generally free to fire caregivers for any reason or no reason at all.

The obvious solution to the impact that caregiving has on careers is to treat caregiving as a health benefit that is covered by Medicare. Medicare funding to hire paid caregivers would allow family members to devote more time to their careers. While there seems to be little political will to make that a reality, the growing number of older adults in the United States can be a potent political force. Conditioning votes for political candidates on their promise to fund caregivers might be the only way to protect workers who must now choose between their careers and their love of their aging parents.

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