Helping at Home
With the recent rise in the number of children diagnosed with some form of autism, an increasing number of employees now face overwhelming challenges at home. But experts say employers can -- and should -- help their workers who care for special-needs children to better balance home life and work life.
By Jill Cueni-Cohen
With the recent report from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that one in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder -- marking a 30-percent increase from one in 88 just two years ago -- it's high time for employers to recognize the fact that there's a percentage of their workforce who need extra attention: the parents who care for children with autism and other special needs.
There are easy ways for employers to show their support, experts say.
"You can call attention to the fact that April is Autism Awareness Month," says Ashley Parker, communications manager for the Bethesda, Maryland-based Autism Society, "by putting up posters and our ribbon to show that you are a compassionate and welcoming workplace."
A lot of organizations do outreach and volunteer days with their employees, she says, "and doing something in your community to help families who have kids with autism is another great way to show that your company cares."
However, a culture of compassion toward those workers who have to deal with unexpected interruptions, crazy schedules and endless appointments must already exist beforehand, says Maria Greco Danaher, an attorney in the Pittsburgh office of Ogletree Deakins. And this begins with a strong policy that makes clear to managers that discrimination of caregivers will not be tolerated.
"Under the Americans with Disability Act, the association provision protects employees and applicants based on their association with an individual with a disability," says Greco Danaher, noting that caregiver discrimination could result in a damaging lawsuit. She advises companies to train supervisors and managers to recognize the obligation employers have under the ADA and ensure they understand and enforce those policies.
"If an employee who's a caregiver makes a complaint, make sure you respond immediately," says Greco Danaher, adding that it's important to further assure the individual they will not be retaliated against because of the complaint. "This assurance is important because, if that person is fired, it then gives them two different causes for action."
Knowing what resources are available to caregivers is also critical, says Parker, who says the Autism Society created The Autism Source Resource Database in 2004 to offer credible and reliable resources through a call center that's accessible 24/7/365.
"Put our number up [in employee-accessible areas such as break rooms]: 800-3-AUTISM," she says. "We have more than 100 affiliate organizations throughout the country that offer core services and local parent support groups."
Working parents with special-needs children do not make up the majority of your workforce, but their numbers are growing, due in part to a greater prevalence of autism spectrum disorders, says Chris Duchesne, vice president of Care.com's Global Workplace Solutions, headquartered in Waltham, Mass.
"Whether employers perceive there to be a need for services for these parents or not, there most certainly is. And there's an opportunity for employers to do something about it," Duchesne says, adding that it's time for employers to understand that recognizing the needs of a small but vocal -- not to mention costly -- section of their workforce will become increasingly important.
"For the next generation of workers, it's more important to them than past generations," he says. "If you don't address it now, it will only get more prevalent."
Global Workplace Solutions provides an online destination for finding and managing family care. Serving 9.7 million members in 16 countries, Care.com's web and mobile platforms enable families to connect to care providers and caregiving services while also helping care providers find meaningful work.
According to data from the National Health Policy Forum, 12 percent of dependent children enrolled in health plans account for nearly 50 percent of the costs. But Adam Goldberg, founder and CEO of MyEdGPS, an education-navigation platform developed by Bright Horizons Family Solutions of Watertown, Mass. and offered exclusively to employer clients, says it doesn't have to be that way.
"Most of the services for children with special needs are provided for in two big domains: healthcare and special education," Goldberg says, adding that speech, physical and occupational therapy are all federally mandated under the ADA.
"This means that it's probably more appropriate for a family to have their children receive these services in school," he says, "but the typical reaction of parents is often to run to the medical community."
MyEdGPS is designed to make the process of seeking services for families of special-needs children more efficient, immediately reducing medical claim costs for employers while supporting employees' pressing needs. "It helps them determine at a higher level what types of services -- if any -- are appropriate," says Goldberg, noting that some providers are being reimbursed twice; by school districts and insurance providers. "Everyone is paying more than they have to, and it will take some time to parse through everything and realign the incentives properly, but for now there are ways for employers and employees to head this off and make it more efficient for everyone."
As the U.S. employee benefits leader at Biogen Idec, a global biotechnology company headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., that employs approximately 7,000 workers worldwide, Susan McGowan didn't realize how many people were struggling with the extra demands of caring for special-needs children until Biogen implemented MyEdGPS earlier this year.
"We knew we have a lot of families with children, but we didn't know how many had special needs," says McGowan, adding that the impact of just offering the program was profound, resulting in actual letters of gratitude from employees.
"If you offer a program and only 50 employees engage, but you can save so many hours of productivity, that's high impact," she says. "It may not be broad-based, but it says a lot about the culture of our company."