Netsy Firestein

(WOMENSENEWS)–Helen Wong has two priorities: her family and her full-time job as a housekeeper at the Marriott Hotel in San Francisco.

A 58-year-old mother of five, Wong also cares for her 90-year-old mother-in-law who suffers from high blood pressure and cannot walk unaided. She feared she might have to quit her job because there was no one to look after the older woman during her early morning shift.

“That would have been a disaster for the entire family,” said Wong. “My husband is in poor health, our youngest daughter is in medical school and I’ve worked at the hotel for 19 years and earn a good salary and benefits.”

Wong’s union, UNITE HERE Local 2, which represents hospitality workers, came to the rescue though. The union has a child and elder care fund that paid for a caregiver to clean her mother-in-law’s house and look in on her while Wong is at work.

“I have peace of mind now; I know my mother-in-law is safe and being well cared for,” Wong said. “I also have more time to provide companionship when I visit her each day.”

Wong’s need for elder care is common among women, but her job-related benefits aren’t.

An estimated 10 million Americans–29 percent of those over 65–need help with personal needs, household chores and errands. Home health aides earned $19 an hour in 2006, according to the MetLife Mature Market Institute in Westport, Conn., so families often rely on their own to fill the need. Although more men are lending a hand, women still provide the majority of care–an average of 134 hours each month–according to a study published by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., in 2006.

The care burden can even cut careers short. Last week, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told Congress she retired in order to care for her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Before she stepped down, she took him to work with her on days when he could not be alone.

Caregiving’s Financial Toll

In addition to physical and emotional stress, caregiving takes a financial toll. The Urban Institute study found that 55- to 67-year-old women who cared for elderly parents decreased their work by 367 hours in 2006, incurring an average loss of $6,300 in wages and $2,300 in benefits.

“People shouldn’t have to choose between their jobs and families, but many women do,” said Netsy Firestein, executive director of the Labor Project for Working Families in Berkeley, Calif. “Some work part time or leave the work force; others accept low-paying positions without benefits. This is sad because they are left with little savings, no pensions and reduced Social Security for their old age.”

But if Wong doesn’t represent the norm for U.S. women in the paid work force, she does represent a union trend. After decades of decline due to a retrenching by male-dominated industries unions are now reversing those losses, largely because more women are joining. Union membership rose to 15.7 million in 2007, an increase of 311,000 since 2006, and women now represent 44 percent of union membership, an all-time high.

And as female membership rises so does the help unions are extending to members to handle the heavier caregiving burdens that traditionally fall to women.

Often the benefits surpass those under the 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in any 12-month period to care for newborns or an adopted child, sick family members or to cope with serious illness of their own. More than 50 million workers have taken time off under the law.

Half of Workers Lack Leave

A February Labor Department report, however, found that only half the nation’s 145 million workers are eligible for family leave because they work for companies with fewer than 50 employees, which are exempt from the law.

Against this backdrop, unions with heavy female membership are beginning to forge a different paradigm.

Christine Silvia-DeGennaro, a labor standards policy analyst for the AFL-CIO in Washington, says unions often negotiate paid leave or contract clauses that expand the definitions of family to include in-laws, grandparents and even great-grandparents.

And to prevent workers from having to take leaves of absence, some unions are pioneering benefits to relieve the burdens on caregivers so they can stay at work.

Wong’s UNITE HERE Local 2, for instance, provides up to $150 a month for health care and other basic needs for elderly or disabled spouses, domestic partners, parents, parents-in-law or grandparents. That can cover house-cleanings or small payments to helpers, who might pick up a prescription for $5 or make a visit to an elderly relative for $10.

The benefit is financed by an employer contribution of 15 cents for every hour worked by an eligible union member. About 420 of the 8,000 members will use it in 2008.

Louise K. Rush, director of the fund, said that providing elder care has been a win-win strategy for both labor and management.

“Members value the benefit because they feel a strong responsibility to care for those who looked after them earlier in life,” she said. “Management at the hotels has found that an elder care benefit helps them attract and keep dedicated workers, especially those who work swing, late-night, weekends and other shifts that are difficult to fill.”

Unions Seek Caregiving Benefits

Silvia-DeGennaro predicts that more unions will follow the example of UNITE HERE Local 2 in providing extra caregiving services to workers like Wong.

“By 2030, one of five Americans will be 65 or older,” she said. “The nation will be looking for ways to meet the needs of this older generation, so more unions will bring elder care issues to the bargaining table.”

At Cleveland Teachers Union Local 279 members are entitled to one year of unpaid leave after all personal leave and accumulated sick days have been used.

Members of California State Employees Local 1000 may receive donations of annual leave, vacation and compensatory time off, personal leave or holiday credits from other workers. To qualify, an employee must face financial hardship because of an injury or prolonged illness of a parent or spouse’s parent.

Unions are also providing resource and referral services. District one of the Communications Workers of America, which represents Verizon workers in New York and New England, negotiated a provision to provide workers with services from a geriatric case manager who evaluates an elderly relative’s competency over such everyday matters as meal preparation and making her way to doctor’s appointments and then helps arrange services such as Meals on Wheels or day care, or special equipment like shower stools or magnifying glasses.

On the campaign trail, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have both called for the FMLA benefits to cover companies with over 25 employees. Sen. John McCain has not taken a position.

The Bush administration, by contrast, has proposed rules to restrict the FMLA. Workers in physically demanding jobs would have to pass a medical clearance to return to work and some employers would gain the right to contact their health care providers directly. Other proposed changes include requiring advance notice for nonemergency leaves and proof that health conditions are serious.

Sharon Johnson is a New York freelance writer.

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