As the summer heated up, families around the country waited anxiously for local schools to announce reopening plans for the fall. By now, many have learned that it won’t be business as usual. Some schools will not resume in-person classes at all,and othersare offering a hybrid of in-person and remote learning to limit class sizes and comply with social-distancing recommendations. Even in locations where schools are expected to open, push-back from teachers and high infection rates make a normal school schedule hard to count on. A slim majority of parents with school-age children – 60% of those recently polled – agree that schools should wait to resume in-person classes until the risk of contracting coronavirus is lower. But that doesn’t mean that disruptions to school schedules won’t wreak havoc for working parents and their employers.
How big of an issue is this? Two-fifths of all families in the US have at least one child under the age of 18; of those, 64% had both parents employed – that’s about 30 million families. There are also 10 million single working mothers today, and 5 million single working fathers. Working parents today rely heavily on schools to care for their children, and most don’t have a caregiver at home who is not working. Even for parents with the ability to pay for childcare, in the midst of a pandemic there are fewer options available to school-aged children.
The current caregiver crisis is a complex societal problem with no easy solutions. But we think there are ways for employers to provide meaningful support to working parents while showing the empathy that is needed during this difficult situation. This support can be provided in three broad categories – flexibility at work, flexibility from work, and caregiver support.
Flexibility at Work
What we’ve learned during the pandemic is that flexibility has many dimensions. To support working caregivers, employers can provide more flexibility with respect to when or how work gets done. Here are a few ways jobs can flex:
Flextime or flexible scheduling. Employees working from home could start early or work evenings, perhaps with core hours scheduled for meetings. For those who are required to work onsite, consider offering alternate shifts such as evening or overnight, and/or breaking up traditional shifts of work. For example, in a retail environment, some work must be done when the store is open, but other work, like restocking, could be done at another time. However, in restructuring how work is performed, it will be important to keep in mind the long-term impact of late or night shifts on employee health and wellbeing.
Compressed workweeks. In some industries, compressed workweeks – where an employee works 40 hours in four days and has one day off, for example – are already common, and prior to the pandemic the concept had been catching on in some office environments as well. Beyond adding flexibility for parents dealing with hybrid school schedules, this option could potentially help reduce caregiving costs by facilitating pooling child-care responsibilities, where parents band together, each taking one day a week as a caregiver – or even as an educator in a mini-homeschooling pod. From the employer perspective, research on compressed workweeks show no negative impact on productivity or revenue.
Job sharing or reduced schedule. Allowing job sharing – coordinating the schedules of two employees to reduce their time at work – would allow the employee additional time to care for children. This option is typically associated with a reduction in compensation, which may not be viable for some employees. Companies also have an opportunity to create funds for employees who need the flexibility of a reduced schedule, but can’t afford to earn less. But despite the potential economic impact, job sharing or reduced schedule can allow the option of staying in the workforce rather than leaving altogether.
Flexibility from Work
Employers have been reviewing their leave policies to see how they might be used by working parents under various scenarios created by COVID-19 – from the need to care for a child who is home sick or in quarantine, or simply to care for a child when school is closed due to COVID-19 and no other childcare is available. Here are some considerations:
Utilize current leave programs. First consider the leave programs in place today and how employees might use PTO, vacation or sick leave, extended illness banks, Family Medical Leave (FML), and other company leaves. Second, ensure your policies clearly define the “caregiver” relationship and how the leaves will be managed. If you outsource your leave and disability, work with your vendors to define the process and the leave type that will be utilized -- FML, company Leave, paid/unpaid, intermittent vs. continuous use, etc.
Emergency (pandemic) leave. Some employers are creating paid and/or unpaid leave programs to help employees maintain income and benefits for a specified duration of time during the pandemic. We are working with some clients who have decided to model their programs after The Families First Coronavirus Response Act for employers with less than 500 employees. Employees are able to get paid sick leave (two weeks/80 hours at 2/3 pay) and expanded FML of up to an additional 10 weeks for specific situations related to COVID-19, such as to care for an individual subject to quarantine, or to care for a child whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19. Going a step further, some employers are broadening the reason for leave beyond caring for a child to caring for an adult dependent, as well.
Return to Work. It’s also important to review return protocols for employees who may take caregiving leave in continuous blocks or intermittently. This would include scheduling, systems access, and other protocols.
Beyond work flexibility and leaves, employers can provide practical support for working parents, ranging from caregiver referral or navigation services to onsite daycare. Of course, safety is the governing concern, so any form of support must be safe for both the care recipients and the individuals providing care.
Referral, navigation or placement resources provide a platform to source back-up or full-time child care. Most vendors in the back-up care space are being more flexible with out-of-network coverage, allowing parents to find their own caregivers, such as a trusted family member or neighbor not currently in the vendor’s in-home network; this helps protect both employer and employee from excess fees. These marketplaces also offer care for a variety of needs including pet-care, home care and even running errands so it provides value for all employees regardless of specific caregiving needs.
Virtual educational offerings provide interactive sessions for pre-school aged children and enhanced access to tutoring or homework help for school-aged children. Demand for these types of offerings is high and vendors are racing to innovate and make new program available, particularly enhanced offerings available for school-aged children designed to make up for time lost in their regular school environment.
Support for creating a care cohort or co-op, as discussed above, is a creative approach to the childcare dilemma. In a care cohort, multiple families share a caregiver and the cost of the services, or even take turns providing care themselves. Working with a vendor, employers can offer a platform to help individuals find care and learning communities close to home. Employees can search for care locally and become acquainted with individuals that have the similar caregiving needs, whether that be for education, babysitting or full-time care. In addition to helping reduce cost for the families, creating care cohorts or co-ops also offers the opportunity for children to engage socially with peers in a virtual or in-home environment.
Full caregiver support may not be feasible for all employers, but there are some that are sponsoring permanent or pop-up on-site day care, and we’ve seen employers that offer back-up care double or triple the number of days provided to employees. Some employers are also paying one-time stipends or ongoing monthly stipends to cover excess cost for childcare or other personal needs. One creative idea is to set up a Section 139 Disaster Relief Payment Fund, earmarking tax-free funds for childcare needs during the pandemic. These accounts can also be used to cover unexpected costs for employees without caregiver needs, such as necessary personal expenses.
The caregiver issue for employers is real!
Disrupted school schedules have immediate consequences for kids, parents, and employers, but employers also need to think about the long-term impact on their workforce and business. Consider this:
Providing the right combination of flexibility and support to caregivers means considering the impact on all aspects of their well-being – financial, physical and emotional -- as they balance responsibilities around work with caregiving needs. There’s no magic bullet, so employers will need to get creative to help mitigate – though clearly not solve – this societal crisis. Our best advice: Engage with and listen to your workers to develop solutions that balance empathy, economics and equity to ensure support is available to all who need it.
Special thanks to Shauna Bryngelson and Megan Neumann for their contributions to this blog post.