Employers who have helped workers with child care -- providing subsidies, counseling and referrals -- are now beginning to offer programs for workers who care for elderly parents.
They are still only a handful, less than 1 percent of U.S. employers, according to the Conference Board, a New York business-research group. But elder care is steadily gaining as a part of work-family programs at large employers.
"It is similar to what we saw happen with child care in the '70s and '80s," said Daniel Dreyer, a Conference Board research analyst. "The larger companies are introducing elder-care programs to help their employees cope."
Only a few North Carolina employers have elder-care programs, but many are exploring the issue, said Florrie Glasser, work and family project director for N.C. Equity, a Raleigh-based nonprofit group that deals with education and family issues.
"Everyone knows it will be the next big issue," said Ms. Glasser, who coordinates the organization's Work and Family Council. The council has members from 40 private and public employers who have or plan to create benefits to help workers juggle work and family responsibilities.
Boston-based Work/Family Directions Inc., a dependent-care consulting firm, said eight of the 50 employers it contracts with nationally are in the Carolinas. Among its clients are large companies such as IBM, AT&T; and Burroughs Wellcome Co., which have sites in the Carolinas.
Among N.C. Equity's Work and Family Council members, five offer elder-care programs with counseling and referrals.
At many companies, employees caring for elderly relatives are eligible for pretax dependent-care spending accounts and flexible work arrangements. Under the dependent-care spending accounts, qualified workers can set aside up to $5,000 a year tax-free to pay for the care of aging relatives if they are responsible for more than 50 percent of the relatives' expenses.
SAS Institute Inc. in Cary, Champion International in Roanoke Rapids and Canton, and Burroughs Wellcome in Research Triangle Park, all in North Carolina, are three of the companies with elder-care programs that offer referral services to employees and retirees.
Diane Fuqua, SAS Institute's work/family administrator, said demand for her company's month-old elder-care program, called Generation to Generation, has far exceeded expectations.
"It's been 100 percent more than we expected," Ms. Fuqua said.
Ms. Fuqua wouldn't release numbers, but she said the initial response to the program showed employees need help wading through elder-care options. "It's so hard to figure out what they need," Ms. Fuqua said. "They need someone to help them sort through what's out there."
SAS Institute has a resource center with books, pamphlets and videos on aging. And it trains managers to make them sensitive to the needs of employees who must care for relatives.
The 3,500 workers at Burroughs Wellcome's Research Triangle Park facility can dial a toll-free number to reach a counselor in the part of the country where the elderly relative lives.
Bernadine Weddington, Burroughs' work/family programs manager, said the service had been available to workers since last October.
"It does all the footwork for the employees," Ms. Weddington said.
"It saves them time and reduces the time that could be taken away from their jobs if they had to make all these calls themselves."
Ms. Weddington said 35 employees called the toll-free line during the first three months.
Champion's program, which serves both employees and retirees, is about 2 years old. Regina Dickens, the company's employee assistance program coordinator in Roanoke Rapids, said services include referrals and workshops on care-giving, living wills and Alzheimer's disease. The company also offers up to a three-month leave of absence to workers caring for elderly relatives.
The leave is unpaid, but workers keep their benefits and are guaranteed their jobs on return.
The Stamford, Conn.-based paper manufacturer offers its elder-care program to its 2,600 workers in Canton, N.C., and Roanoke Rapids and 1,775 retirees, mostly in Canton.
Other companies, including big Charlotte, N.C., employers First Union, NationsBank and Duke Power, don't have elder-care programs, but are exploring the issue.
"We are researching what other companies are doing in this area, not only in North Carolina but nationally," said Pam Kerns, Duke's work and family coordinator.
"We want to know how successful their programs have been and how applicable they would be to our work force . . .
"We recognize this is an issue and that it is getting here faster than we anticipated," Ms. Kerns said. "It's coming so fast, we might be left trying to play catch-up."
Mary Waller, NationsBank's manager of communications, said the bank didn't offer counseling and referrals for elder care but that employees caring for elderly relatives could use the bank's flexible work arrangements and pretax spending plans.
Joan Hope, First Union's work and family coordinator, said her company also was preparing to deal with the issue.
"With the number of Americans over 65 growing so fast, elder care is going to be a much bigger issue than child care," Ms. Hope said.