Juggling professional and family responsibilities has always been challenging for working parents, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has caused some families to reach a breaking point. As companies begin to bring back employees from working at home and a new school year looms large, working parents are debating daunting issues, and employers can do a lot to ease the stress, according to one workplace authority.
“Childcare is not a new problem for working parents. Most corporations have never offered the options or the support working parents need to ease their childcare struggles. The pandemic has brought this fact to the forefront, as so many families suddenly found everyone at home – and the home became the office, school, and daycare center all at once,” said Andrew Challenger, Senior Vice President of global outplacement and executive and business coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.
As cases rise exponentially around the country, parents are increasingly asking themselves how to navigate childcare safely. Should they continue to keep their children home from daycare or school? Should they hire an in-home daycare provider to limit the number of people who come into contact with their children? Will they get into an affordable daycare center (many daycare centers have closed or are limiting the number of children because of social distancing protocols)? What happens if schools and daycare centers close abruptly if coronavirus cases spike? Because hybrid schooling models have children attending school in person only two days per week, what happens on the other days?
“There are employers that approach the problem as though they do not have a responsibility to help working parents because they believe they can fill their positions with childless employees. Those companies need to re-think that. This will damage morale, future recruitment efforts, brand recognition and, ultimately, the bottom line,” said Challenger.
Millions of American workers struggle with daycare issues every day – with little help from their employers – even when they are not working from home and children are in daycare or at school.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, there were 33.4 million families, or two-fifths of all families, that included children under age 18. At least one parent was employed in 91.3% of those families. In families with married parents, 97.5% had at least one employed parent in 2019, and 64.2% had both parents employed.
The financial burden is enormous. The Brookings Institution reports that one estimate of the average weekly cost of full-time (40 hours per week) daycare is $196 per child, or about $10,000 per year. Other estimates are much higher, and costs vary geographically, by the age of the child, and by the form of childcare. Brookings gives the example of full-time daycare at a center for one infant or toddler, which ranges from about $5,000 per year in Mississippi to more than $22,000 per year in Washington, DC.
Yet, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has stated that affordable childcare should not exceed 7% of the family income.
According to online magazine Slate, parents in the U.S. pay 60% of the cost of childcare, the government covers about 39% through subsidies to needy families, and corporations and philanthropies provide 1%.
“To be considered a great place to work, companies need to understand what employees with family responsibilities need. Companies offering childcare assistance of any sort is a rare, yet valuable, thing,” said Challenger.
A Challenger survey conducted in June 2018 found that 16.7% of the 150 companies polled nationwide offered childcare assistance to attract and retain talent, and 4.8% offered on-site childcare.
A separate, larger study of 900 employers across the United States by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in 2016 found 7% of employers provide daycare at or near the worksite. Only 2% provided payment for childcare with vouchers or other subsidies that had direct costs to the organization, while 56% offered Dependent Care Assistance Plans (DCAPs) that help employees pay for childcare with pre-tax dollars.
Of the employers surveyed by SHRM, 3% provided childcare for school-age children on vacation, 4% provided sick care for children, and 5% offered back-up emergency care for employees when their regular childcare arrangements fell through.
“As companies begin to bring employees back to the workplace, daycare issues return and parents who continue working from home face burnout as they try to be a productive employee, daycare provider, and teacher at the same time,” said Challenger.
Challenger offered the following tips for employers to help ease the childcare burden:
- Be flexible. Allow employees to work from home if that is the best option for their families or on a spur-of-the-moment basis if a school or daycare facility closes unexpectedly. Conduct meetings at different hours, not always between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
- Share responsibilities. Train employees to know each other’s duties and create back-up staffing plans for essential tasks. Have teams share projects so they can cover for a parent who has an emergency arise.
- Share the costs. Re-examine paid leave policies. Consider subsidizing childcare or emergency childcare. Provide referral options for daycare services.
- Pay attention to employees’ health. Managers should check in on parents to assess their emotional health and make sure they are handling the stress well. Advocate for time off, encourage breaks, and pass along referrals for counseling if needed.
- Encourage healthy work relationships. Communication should not always be about deadlines and responsibilities. Get to know all aspects of employees’ lives. Listen to their needs and frustrations. Ask them what would be most helpful. Work together for solutions and alternatives that will help the employees, which in turn will help them be more productive.
- Examine workloads. Reduce the total number of hours needed to work, especially if goals can still be accomplished. Reprioritize goals so only essential ones are the focus.
- Be creative. Create virtual events, lessons, and activities that can help entertain and teach children who are at home with working parents.
- Evaluate technology. Assess if employees’ households are equipped technologically to deal with working and schooling remotely from home. Consider providing adequate Wi-Fi or extra devices so workers may remain as productive as possible.
“In order to be considered an attractive company where people want to work going forward, childcare is an issue that can no longer take a backseat to other incentives and perks offered to employees,” said Challenger.
“So many people need childcare options and solutions. A company that is compassionate, empathetic, and flexible will attract the strongest workers in the long run,” he added.
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From @atlairportnews “As companies begin to bring #employees back to the workplace… parents who continue #workingfromhome face #burnout as they try to be a productive employee, daycare provider, and teacher at the same time,” said @AndyChallengeHR@ajc https://t.co/S4cYMUMkgZ
— ChallengerGray (@ChallengerGray) August 26, 2020