Monday, August 07, 2000

Worker issue: caring for aged

Employers offer referrals, time off

By Stephanie Armour
USA Today

        It's not just child care anymore. A growing number of large employers are rolling out innovative programs to aid workers who are caring for elderly relatives.

        The stepped-up efforts are coming amid reports that productivity suffers when employees grapple with elder care demands. With an estimated 25 percent of households caring for elderly relatives or friends, employers are realizing that this issue affects their bottom line.

        “The whole topic of elder care took a back seat to child care in this country,” said AT&T spokesman Burke Stinson. “Corporations are finally trying to do something.”

        The number of employers offering elder care benefits has soared from 20 percent in 1990 to nearly 50 percent last year, according to a poll by benefit consultants Hewitt Associates. These include such services as counseling, long-term care insurance and referral services.

        More than 80 percent of workers caring for an older relative say they have had to adjust their schedules — working fewer hours, for example, or quitting their job, based on a report by Metropolitan Life Insurance.

        Large companies are helping. Some examples:

        • AT&T provides a referral service to elder care providers and other services. In addition to flexible scheduling, it also has a leave policy that lets employees take up to 12 months of unpaid time off in any 24-month period to care for aging relatives — a program that caters to the irregular scheduling needs that often face these employees.

        “It was great to have someone to talk to, someone who cared,” said Margaret Covel, 52, a customer service representative who works in Syracuse, N.Y., and used the referral program to help find care for her mother, who has Alzheimer's and lives with her.

        • At IBM, employees get a discount to a program that gives their elderly relatives emergency care assistance.

        A referral system helps with a variety of real-world concerns, such as where to get help drafting a living will and when to get power of attorney for a relative with Alzheimer's. Counseling is available for workers whose aging relative is dying.

        “It's a business issue,” said Ted Childs, vice president of global workforce diversity, adding that the average age of employees is now about 40. “It's become a productivity issue, just like when younger people were dealing with child care issues.”

        While big companies are taking the lead, experts say small and medium-size firms lag in the number of programs provided.

        Many believe more companies will roll out programs as the work force ages.


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