Weekly column in the Washington Times Communities by Laurie Edwards-Tate

Imaging telling today’s working parents that they can’t have any time off for doctor’s appointments, child care emergencies, or school activities. The culture of the modern workplace in America has changed to accommodate the realities of being a working parent.

Employers didn’t change their thinking out of a sense of fairness or compassion. They were losing the talent of too many good employees when they forced them to choose between their children and their jobs. Employers learned that a little bit of flexibility and a small investment in benefits paid off in increase worker loyalty and productivity. It’s been good for families and good for the bottom line.

Caregivers are now at the crossroads working parents once faced. Their challenges have been largely ignored, but the sheer number of aging Americans is forcing the issue into focus. Once again, workers who find the competing demands of work and caregiving to be too much of a strain are forced to choose family over their jobs. An AARP study found that caregiving employees are increasingly taking leaves of absence, working less hours, or quitting altogether to cope with their caregiving responsibilities.

When working mothers faced challenges with quality child care options, employers stepped forward with resources. They realized that offering attractive child care benefits drew higher quality employees. They learned that flex time hours, worksharing arrangements, telecommuting, and other simple accommodations made for productive, loyal employees.

The same can be true with caregivers in the workforce.

Employers who include child care as part of a Section 125 “cafeteria” style benefit plan (workplace benefit plans that allow employees to defer taxable income) should consider broadening their benefit definition to dependent care instead of just child care, which could include children, elderly, or disabled dependents. This is a simple change that could benefit tens of thousands of people.

Dependent care Flexible Savings Accounts (FSAs) allow employees to hold back as much as $5,000 of their pre-tax income for expenses related to the care of a child under 13, and long-term care for parents or dependent adults. By paying for this care with pre-tax dollars, employees can save from 20 to 40 percent on their expenses. Chances are that employees are already paying for these expenses anyway. Section 125 plans let them save money they’re already spending.

Every dollar an employer runs through such a plan reduces the employer’s payroll. The employer doesn’t have to pay taxes or workers’ compensation premiums on those dollars. So the employer saves as much as 20 percent too.

Employers should explore ways to work with organizations in the community to provide resources for employees. There are many nonprofit and high quality private organizations that can provide caregiver support and ease the strain.

For small businesses this can admittedly be a burden. But the cost of the alternative – leaving employees to fend for themselves – is simply too great.

Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!

NEXT WEEK: The Aging Well Checklist

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