Family Responsibilities Discrimination Can Hit Caregivers Hard

Family responsibilities discrimination is a relatively new term for an old problem—when employers assume that employees who care for children, aging parents or other family members are less committed to their jobs and less inclined to go “all in” for their employer.

While the division of domestic labor is changing as men and women seek to equalize who does what at home, women still assume the majority of responsibility for such caregiving. As such, family responsibilities discrimination, or FRD, hits women particularly hard, and can begin as soon as she announces a pregnancy or begins to show signs she is expecting a baby.

Employers may make all sorts of erroneous assumptions that limit career opportunities. They may assume, for example, that a caregiver-employee will not want assignments that include travel, overtime, or high-profile leadership roles within the company. They may pass over that employee when considering whom to appoint to a committee, task force, or steering group within the company.

The problem is sometimes rooted in what the employer feels is best for the employee, rather than what the employee her or himself has indicated. For example, a paternalistic employer may assume a more high-powered management role is “inappropriate” for a woman with caregiving responsibilities, and steer her into less demanding positions. This, of course, has a long-term deleterious effect, seriously limiting the employee’s chances for advancement in the company and negatively impacting lifetime earnings.

While there is no specific law banning caregiver discrimination, workers are protected under a variety of statutes, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Equal Pay Act (EPA) also provide some protections.

Employees are suing their employers for caregiver discrimination, and in most cases, are winning. According to the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, employees win “67 percent of the FRD cases that go to trial—a far higher rate than other employment cases—and employees prevail in 52 percent of all FRD cases that are filed.”

Employers would do well the check their own biases when hiring, reviewing, and promoting employees who may care for others outside of work, or risk expensive litigation.