Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, working parents have cobbled together patchwork child care strategies—many of which probably involve lots of screen time and plenty of stress and guilt.
Online school in the spring gave way to a summer of camp closures. And now, as COVID-19 cases surge across the United States, parents are eyeing an iffy outlook for school in the fall as some districts plan to continue virtual learning or offer a hybrid of in-person and online classes.
That puts working parents in a tight bind as a growing number of companies also recall employees and reopen offices. Even if they’re lucky enough to work remotely, working parents continue to juggle an impossible situation that involves meeting those work deadlines and making sure their kids are educated and safe.
Without school or child care, many employees have nowhere to place heir kids during working hours. And some, particularly women, may end up leaving the workforce altogether if they can’t find a way to balance it all, triggering a drain on talent and costly and time-consuming rehiring processes for employers.
During these challenging times, working parent and labor law experts are counseling flexibility, compassion and investment in the working parents on your teams.
“If you want to keep your people and keep them productive, effective and innovative, you are going to need to invest in them so they can return that investment to you,” said Lisa Durante, a Toronto-based working parent consultant and founder of LDI Consulting, who works with clients across the United States.
Here are seven ways small businesses can support working parents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Be flexible.
You may already let employees work from home, even at odd hours in between their caregiving responsibilities. Continued flexibility is critical, Durante said, but goes beyond just allowing remote work.
When scheduling meetings, keep the dialogue open about what’s possible for everybody. That standing 8:30 a.m. Zoom call, for example, might not work for the parent who needs to help her child log in to a virtual camp at the very same time.
You also should be flexible on how work gets done, Durante said. Instead of requiring teams to communicate via email with a strict memo format, open up collaboration to text, Slack or another mobile-friendly platform, so working parents can tap out responses to questions on their smartphones while they’re also feeding their kids.
“Change is hard,” Durante said. “But now is the time to take a more flexible approach.”
2. Help with child care—and get a tax break.
As the pandemic continues, not every employee will be able to send their children to school or hire a child care provider. Some adults and children with certain chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems face serious risks if they contract COVID-19.
But other working parents may embrace the chance for any support from their employer to find and pay for full-time or backup child care. Kasey Edwards, co-founder and CEO of Helpr, an app-based child care service that has seen a huge spike in interest during the pandemic, said the crisis has underscored that child care support from employers is no longer just nice to have.
“We’re seeing child care as almost the backbone of the economy,” Edwards said. “When that’s broken down, schools aren’t in place and children are at home, we have a breakdown in operations. So, we’ve suggested to employers to start thinking about child care as more of an operational expense, almost a productivity insurance expense, and less as a perk.”
And there is a benefit for you when you offer child care support to your employees—a tax break from the federal government. The Internal Revenue Service lets companies claim 10 or 25 percent of the cost—up to $150,000 a year—when they set up a day care center or subsidize their employees’ child care expenses in other ways, such as providing a referral service.
3. Offer dependent care Flexible Spending Accounts.
As you plan your benefits package for the coming year, consider extending a dependent care Flexible Spending Account to workers. These pre-tax accounts let parents save about 30% on qualified care expenses for children under 13, along with adults who are physically or mentally incapacitated.
“It’s a huge cost saver,” Edwards said.
4. Encourage boundary setting between work time and time off.
Coupled with the stress of living during a pandemic, working parents also are finding themselves working from home constantly, responding to evening phone calls from managers or squeezing in more hours every weekend or late at night.
“The joke is every day is a Tuesday,” said Daisy Dowling, founder and CEO of New York-based Workparent, which consults with working parents and companies. “And there is no boundary, which is miserable. Before we wanted flexibility to blur the boundaries, and now we have to have the flexibility to set them.”
Even though many employees are stuck in their homes without big weekend plans, you need to set boundaries around work hours and encourage working parents to take some time off. “The vacation died during this pandemic, and we’ve got to bring it back,” Dowling said.
5. Connect parents to resources.
From the very beginning, the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a rise in mental health issues as people grapple with the repercussions of a global health crisis that left them anxious about their and their loved ones’ health, the viability of their jobs and what’s to come. Working mothers, especially, say they’re dealing with mounting mental health concerns. Employers should step up.
“A lot of companies gave these subsidies so people could set up home offices when this all started,” Durante said. “Now that we are way further along and our future is uncertain, I think the investment is on the wellbeing, so that you can continue to function.”
That could include, Durante said, coaching and consulting with employees or offering an Employee Assistance Program, which can connect employees with mental health support. If you already have an Employee Assistance Program, which often are rarely used, promote it.
“Oftentimes, companies do have these partnerships, but they forget to keep telling their employees about it,” she said. “Make sure that if that is available, folks know that it is.”
6. Help working parents help themselves.
“Every single organization should have a working parent Slack channel,” Dowling said. “If you don’t, that’s a loss.”
Through Slack or some other support network for parents in your workforce, employees can encourage each other, share solutions to common issues or alert colleagues to a daycare center with an open spot or the perfect local sitter.
“Your employees are going to be better about solving those problems themselves than you will in a more systematic or structured way,” she said.
7. Be cautious
Employment law experts expect a surge in workplace-related claims as the pandemic continues. Already, one lawsuit has been filed by a mother who was fired after asking for two hours off each day to help her child with school. And Florida State University raised eyebrows with a policy (which they’ve since walked back) that said employees working from home could no longer care for children at the same time.
As you set new policies or make decisions about working parents, you’ll need to be aware of the local, state and federal laws where you operate that protect your employees’ rights or that may extend new benefits to them, said Jessica N. Childress, managing attorney of The Childress Firm in Washington, D.C.
At the federal level, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, for example, lets parents take up to 12 weeks of family and medical leave if schools or child care facilities are closed because of COVID-19 and ensures they won’t lose their jobs because they took that time off.
All new policies should be in writing, reflect the latest regulations and be based on a legitimate business necessity, said Childress, who recommends employers consult with their own legal counsel as they move forward. In a doctor’s office, doctors and nurses will probably need to come into the office. At a marketing firm, employees likely can still get the job done from home.
As we navigate the next few months or more, Dowling advises employers to take the long view. Not only is finding ways to support working parents good for employees now, but it will be critical when bringing new ones into the fold in the future. Messages of support and reassurance must come regularly from senior leadership, she said.
“Think of it as an employee branding issue,” she said. “Two years from now when somebody is interviewing for a really important position at your company and has kids and asks … ‘What was it like during the pandemic?,’ which they will ask, you want that person to be able to say, it was a blow to us as it was for everybody else, but Susan, our CEO, was really up front about acknowledging it.”