By Shelby Matsumura
If you are a working parent, you probably (hopefully) know whether your kids will be attending school in-person this fall. Re-opening schools has been a hot button issue throughout this pandemic, with numerous pros and cons on each side. For many parents, the return to school is a welcome reprieve from juggling the positions of working parent and homeschool teacher. It’s challenging for parents to sit at their computer and focus on their work while trying to ensure their kids are keeping up with their schoolwork, on top of performing any of the other daily house chores or routines. Moreover, schools contribute heavily to the welfare of children by providing not only much-needed childcare, but also by feeding the 30 million U.S. children who rely on low-cost or free school meals. Going back to school means that parents can finally return to work knowing their children will be cared for and that they won’t suffer from any learning losses by not attending class.
However, there are the obvious COVID-19-related concerns about re-opening schools. Everyone understands that to reduce the chances of contracting the Coronavirus, we must wear masks and socially distance ourselves from other people. But, these standards may be difficult to follow in a school setting, especially for younger children who will struggle distancing themselves from their peers. Returning to school would be ideal for working parents, but if their child contracts COVID-19 or shows some sort of symptoms of sickness, then the child may end up back at home for a 14-day quarantine period. In this scenario, parents will once again have to juggle childcare with their professional responsibilities. While schools may still represent an area of uncertainty for working parents, there are programs that employers and their HR teams can implement to help alleviate this tension for their staff members with children.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 32% of organizations with a set return-to-work date have a childcare plan for their employees while only 24% of organizations without a set return date have such a plan. Although some employers may wonder whether it’s their responsibility to offer a childcare plan, they should still consider providing such a benefit, as it will likely have a direct impact on employees’ abilities to work and their levels of productivity. Childcare as a business benefit, however, is not as common as bonuses or a 401(k). So in lieu of childcare plans, 59% of organizations plan to handle childcare accommodation requests on a case by case basis with 7% of businesses saying they will not grant any accommodations at all. Addressing child accommodation requests on a case-by-case basis could be a viable option for some businesses, but be careful to process requests equitably and consistently amongst your team. If an employee feels like they were unfairly denied an accommodation due to a discriminatory reason, then they may have a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Out of the numerous employee assistance programs that businesses can implement, most business owners respond to childcare accommodation needs with flexibility-related strategies, such as flexible work schedules, allowing full-time remote work, or allowing reduced working hours. Further, providing financial subsidies to parents is another viable option if the business has the appropriate funding. The report released by SHRM further shared that 46% of organizations say that their childcare policies will be adjusted to accommodate employees returning to the worksite but will eventually return to pre-COVID-19 policies. However, before the pandemic, some companies were already offering some form of parental support to their employees.
According to Rachael McCann, a senior director at the human resources consulting firm Willis Towers Watson, offering parental support as an employment benefit wasn’t that abnormal but the manner in which it was offered varied widely from sector to sector. McCann further explains, “Financial services companies were the most likely to offer child-care benefits and led the pack in subsidizing employees who paid for off-site childcare, while healthcare companies were the most likely to offer on-site subsidized childcare.” For these sectors, providing childcare accommodations have not hindered their business model, but were part of their successful employment strategy. Nevertheless, regardless of whether your business has provided childcare accommodations to your employees in the past or you had only planned on offering them temporarily, such policies go a long way in supporting your employees who are splitting time between their children and their work. McCann perfectly sums up the need for parental support, explaining that six months into the pandemic, priorities have changed. Accommodations for working parents have “shifted from being viewed as a perk to being a critical need.” You can read more about Rachael McCann’s interview with the LA Times here.
When the pandemic first hit, many employers implemented emergency policies to aid their employees. These policies, though, were intended to be short-term, stopgap measures that are likely to expire over this summer, even though the needs of working parents haven’t really changed. There are numerous employee assistance programs that a business’ HR team could implement to assist those members of the staff that have children. Below are three strategies for employers to consider in providing childcare accommodations to employees, as recommended by UNICEF.
Assess current workplace policies – Do your businesses’ current policies effectively support families? Employers should first identify the most pressing needs of working parents and assess whether their policies address those needs. For example, employers should have policies that factor caregiver status into talent evaluations and track impact. Because the productivity of working parents is naturally going to be affected by childcare, businesses should account for this burden on employees in reviews, promotions, and pipeline-planning decisions. Workplace policies should also be monitored for any potential biases against caregivers. This goal can be achieved by instructing managers to have open conversations with their employees about how their personal situations are impacting their work.
Grant flexible work arrangements – Flexible work schedules help employees who are caring for children by allowing them to schedule work around the demands of their family. It allows working parents to dedicate their undivided attention and focus to their work even if it’s outside of the traditional 9-to-5 hours of operation. Flexible work arrangements include teleworking, compressing the workweek, expanded and nonpunitive paid family leave, or the option of part-time work for a reduced salary. With all of these flexible working arrangements, it may also be beneficial for employers to develop back-up staffing plans and to cross-train employees to perform essential functions in case of an unexpected scheduling conflict.
Support parents with safe, accessible, and affordable resources – If the children of your employees will not be attending school in-person this fall, it can be helpful for employers to share resources about childcare referral systems, subsidies, or flexible work arrangements. Businesses should also provide guidance on coping with COVID-19 concerns, mental health, and how to seek medical support. For example, employers can share the addresses and phone numbers of local hospitals, health authorities, and emergency hotlines.
While these strategies are attainable for most workplaces, some small business owners may feel like they don’t have the proper resources to provide benefits like a childcare subsidy. For those employers with limited budgets, Inc. recommends a few, less costly ideas that offer extra support to employees with children.
Crowdsource ideas – Create a group chat via Slack or another messaging platform, so parents can share ideas, useful articles, and other resources to help each other juggle both childcare and their professional responsibilities. This forum would also be a great place for employers to share reminders about existing resources available through the company’s benefit plans for mental health, childcare, and other family care offerings.
Accommodate flexible scheduling – Once again, flexibility is key. Adopting a more flexible mindset and business model does not need to be a costly measure for small business owners. Flexible scheduling can be as simple as allowing employees to work in shifts instead of the usual 9-to-5 schedule. Employers can also help by changing the times of reoccurring meetings that may be inconvenient for caretakers, such as early morning meetings that may interfere with daily routines of getting the kids to school.
Furthermore, with an increase in flexible scheduling, employees may become concerned about whether they are meeting their employer’s expectations and if they are performing their duties satisfactorily. For example, an employee who needs to start working in shifts, as a childcare accommodation, may worry that their employer will think of them as less productive than before. If small business owners implement flexible scheduling, they should also redefine and affirm their company’s goals to their employees, so they know what a successful employee looks like at this time. This clarification will help manage any fear or confusion employees may have in response to their new, flexible schedules.
Offer low cost, but meaningful perks – Your small business may not be able to afford a subsidy, but there are other low-cost perks you can offer to your team. Some businesses have provided paid subscriptions to food delivery services for their working parents. Services, like DoorDash and Uber Eats, offer passes that only cost $10 per month and would be a meaningful gift to parents who are in a time crunch to get their work done and dinner on the table. Small business owners could also look into hosting virtual activities for the staff’s kids to help keep them entertained and busy, such as magic shows, webinars, virtual lunches with the other kids, and story hours.
Regardless of which family-friendly policy best fits your business, it is most important for business owners to lead with empathy. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) perfectly summed up this dilemma in that “there are no perfect solutions to these issues, but proactively reaching out to employees, acknowledging their challenges, and where relevant, role modeling by being open with leaders’ own family situations is the first step.” It’s important for small business owners to promote a culture in which employees feel safe enough to express any concerns about their childcare situation that might affect their ability to work.
Further, working parents should feel comfortable using such policies without fear of discrimination or retaliation. Especially women, who often bear the brunt of childcare duties, should not be penalized for taking one of these accommodations. Men may also forego these accommodations for the worse if they feel reluctant to ask for help because they feel more social pressure to prioritize their work over their family. Regardless of gender, all working parents will be reluctant to raise any personal, childcare issues with their employers out of fear of being laid off or furloughed. Just remember, this issue should be approached as one that the whole business needs to work together to resolve instead of one that each employee needs to figure out on their own.
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