Nearly one in four employees in the U.S. cares for a child under the age of 14. This year’s back-to-school uncertainty has put these employees – and their employers – in an impossible position. With many schools delaying openings, opting for virtual learning, or adopting hybrid models, parents are scrambling for solutions that balance their family’s safety, their children’s education needs, and their own professional responsibilities.
Many questions remain unanswered:
What happens if my child’s school requires a mandatory quarantine and I can’t go into the office?
What happens if our city issues a stay-at-home order?
What if our babysitter or nanny gets sick?
As the mother to a three-year-old and kindergartner, my family is facing these challenges too, and I know there are no easy solutions. As an HR recruiter and leader, I also have a front seat to the different approaches taken by companies across the US– and how employees candidly feel about them.
This is a difficult moment with no end in sight. We’re all exhausted from balancing “normal life” with “pandemic life”– and, as much as we want to be, we are not yet “post-pandemic.” How companies choose to navigate this moment – with flexibility and empathy or roadblocks and red tape – will leave a lasting impression on their employees. Already, I’ve had top professionals reaching out to discuss new job opportunities. These professionals are well compensated in their current roles and normally would not be looking for new positions, but they’re frustrated by their companies’ inflexibility and poor communication. It’s a sign of what’s to come: while jobs may feel scarce right now, they won’t be forever– and a mass talent exodus could be on the horizon for companies that fail to look past their bottom lines.
I’ll be the first to say that no company is perfect and no one has all the answers. But from my own experience and conversations with top professionals, these are four effective starting points:
Over-communicate. Communication is always key, especially at a time when many employees continue to feel isolated due to remote work. Leadership must step in and be visible to employees. This takes more than the occasional email message. Your company is made of humans with very real fears and worries. Genuine engagement can only be achieved through open dialogue and speaking with each employee on a person-to-person level.
What avenues exist at your company for employees to express concerns or engage with leadership? What’s the next step for translating these needs into company action? The solutions may be different for every company depending on team needs, but the starting point is the same: open communication channels.
Continue to stay flexible. Many companies offered flexible work policies last spring, but with offices reopening in some parts of the country, this flexibility is waning. That’s a mistake. I appreciate the approach Lucas Group has taken, which allows any employee anywhere to choose to continue working remotely, no explanation necessary. But even with remote work options, companies must still remember that parents cannot both be in two places at once. You can’t help a your child with virtual schooling and be fully present on a team’s conference call a the same time, so flexibility is required as employees navigate child care options.
This is a “practice what you preach” moment to live your company’s values. Bank of America, for example, enhanced their “Bright Horizons” childcare benefit so employees can receive up to $100/day for childcare. The stipend can be used for anyone providing childcare, including friends or relatives helping with virtual learning. Even smaller stipends, like $25/day, can go a long way to helping employees offset additional childcare costs.
Understand options under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Enacted by the US government last April, this act offers paid leave to employees facing a pandemic-related childcare crisis. The act does so in two ways: through an extension of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act.
FMLA is an existing law that guarantees employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for caregiving needs. The pandemic extension allows employees to continue receiving up to two-thirds of their salary for up to 12 weeks if they are parents and forced to take leave to care for children. Employers can pass this cost on to the government. The Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act offers similar leave options for six Covid-19 related reasons, including the childcare predicament facing many working parents.
These Acts aren’t perfect solutions, and 12 weeks of partial salary certainly won’t cover an entire school year, should a parent be forced to take an extended leave of absence. However, they are a starting point for providing support, especially for parents facing challenging situations with children who need extra help for remote learning. Your company may also wish to explore personalized plans with employees who need additional support, such as a short-term leave of absence or furlough. While unlikely to be anyone’s first choice, some employees may need to forgo their salary but maintain their health care benefits.
Create an Employee Resource Group (ERG) for parents. Some parents at your company may already be informally exchanging best practices and leaning on one another for support. Consider formalizing these connections with an ERG open to all employees with children. In addition to being a place for an empathetic ear, monthly calls with an HR rep are an opportunity for your company to understand how changing remote learning plans are impacting employees and directly respond to urgent needs. Depending on the geography of your employees, your company could also offer smaller “support pods” where employees could pool childcare resources.
This is the time for companies to live their values, be creative and think expansively about what’s possible for all employees– not just those with children. The last six months have shone a light on how important our personal and professional relationships are. All of us have a responsibility to do more and help however we can, whether that’s ordering extra groceries to help a neighbor or donating needed items for a community shopping list. This is another place where companies can show up as true leaders and engage their employees with meaningful, local action. Above all, we have a responsibility to one another to offer empathy, flexibility and grace in this challenging moment.