As many as one in six full-time or part-time employees care for an elderly or disabled family member, according to a Gallop poll. But less than a quarter of those workers have access to any assistance in navigating the benefits that are entitled to them.

"Many employees don't know that they have protections," explains Charity Kuahiwinui, an independent human resources consultant who works with small to medium sized businesses. That's because there are no federal mandates to deal with the time off that accompanies caregiving.

But the issue is widespread and affects a large portion of the workforce. Consider these statistics from

Gallup research:

  • 20% of all female and 16% of all male workers in the U.S. are caregivers
  • Caregivers are forced to miss an average of 6.6 days of work per year because of caregiving responsibilities.
  • The cost of lost productivity due to absenteeism among full-time working caregivers is more than $25 billion annually.

With so many caregivers in the workforce and so much at stake in lost productivity for employers, why haven't more programs for caregivers been created? "Since most states do not require employers to offer paid time off, many simply do not provide it," Kuahiwinui says. "Voluntarily doing so is about going above and beyond what is required, and being an employer of choice."

Unfortunately, not many companies choose that route. However, Kuahiwinui says, "As the economy continues to recover and unemployment rates decrease, we may begin to see an overall improvement in the types of benefits extended to employees."

Many caregivers turn to the U.S Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave each year so that a worker can to take time off to care for an immediate family member, such as a newborn, spouse, child or parent (in-laws aren't included). To qualify, a worker must have worked for the business for more than 12 months and contributed to more than 1,250 hours of work time. The Family and Medical Leave Act covers all public agencies, and public and private schools. Businesses qualify by having more than 50 employees located within a radius of 75 miles.

It's important to note that while 52 percent of all American workers are employed by companies with more than 500 workers, 19.6 million employees work for a business with less than 20 people on the payroll – and let's not forget the number of self-employed workers who have no federal protections when it comes to time off for caregiving.

Caregiver-friendly states

Depending on where you live, caregivers may be entitled to additional assistance through state programs. For instance, California offers "Kin Care" which allows employees to use up to half of their accrued sick leave benefits to care for an immediate family member or domestic partner. Hawaii also is known for offering outstanding family leave benefits.

Another option caregivers should investigate is Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) which can offer assistance with life events such as counseling, legal and financial referrals, or putting employees in touch with non-profit or charitable organizations that provide aid. "It's a great resource," adds Kuahiwinui. "I recommend it, but there's often a fee associated with it, and that can be challenging."

Some employers offer caregivers flex-time, which lets the worker set the hours they'll work, to assist in accommodating daytime doctor appointments or physical therapy visits. Other employers allow workers to donate vacation time or sick time to a caregiving coworker. Kuahiwinui says 10 percent of employers or less offer this option because it's challenging to administer effectively since employees earn vacation and sick time at different rates depending on how long they've worked with a business. Job-sharing, where two people perform the same job, is another option, but is not a common concept in many workrooms.

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For caregivers who want to investigate what time off they are entitled to, Kuahiwinui suggests talking with your employer's human resources manager or director. They have experience in labor laws and should know how to assist you in navigating the different options.

To check out the specifics of the Family Medical and Family Leave Act visit the Department of Labor website as well as your state's labor department website. Both will have useful information about taking time off and your rights as an employee and a caregiver.

Managing caregiving and a job isn't easy. But armed with information, caregivers can lessen a bit of the stress they face by knowing their rights.