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Published: Tuesday, 9/7/2010

Caregiving workers strap employers


DETROIT - Corporate America must increasingly find ways to accommodate employees who need to take time off to care for a sick or dying spouse or parent, experts say.

An estimated 48.9 million people, or 21.2 percent of the U.S. population, already provide care to an adult annually, according to a 2009 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving.

But that number is expected to increase.

"You have an aging work force, so therefore you are going to have more people with caregiving responsibilities," said Steven Albert, a University of Pittsburgh professor.

Mr. Albert, co-author of a 2010 study on the cost of caregiving, estimates it costs employers $17.1 billion to $33.6 billion annually.

The cost comes from employee absenteeism, a reduction from full-time to part-time work, the cost of replacing employees, and workday interruptions.

Mr. Albert predicts the cost will increase.

Elaine Bannon, whose husband, Chuck Bannon, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, took little time off work.

However, she was able to employ a caregiver who took care of her husband during the day and had two close colleagues who were usually able to cover for her if she had to take some time off.

That's an option few caregivers have, said Sue Burstein, executive director of ALS of Michigan. Appropriate full-time care for a person with ALS can cost $1,000 per week, she said.

"It financially ruins families," she said.

The Family Medical Leave Act allows employees who have an elderly parent or spouse with serious health problems to take up to 12 weeks off to care for that ailing family member and offers job protection.

But that time off is unpaid in all states other than California.

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