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Experts: Support Working Parents Like The American Economy Depends On It

Fortune 500 CEOs, economists, researchers, and working moms and dads are all too aware: Until the coronavirus is effectively mitigated in the U.S., and schools and day cares are able to reopen safely and stay open consistently, members of the American workforce who are caring for young children at home — 17.5 million workers, or 11% of the workforce — will probably not be able to return to work full time.

This is a problem for parents, who worry about their job security, on top of being spread thin. It is a problem for employers, whose teams may be remote for much longer than they originally planned, and who find themselves needing to adapt to the "new normal" of managing in a pandemic, where worker safety and mental health are inextricable from productivity and a company’s bottom line.

And last but not least, it is a problem for the U.S. economy. In a speech at the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Elizabeth Warren went so far as to compare child care to the critical national infrastructure — like roads, bridges and communication systems — that keeps the economy going.

“It’s time to recognize that child care is part of the basic infrastructure of this nation,” she said. “It’s infrastructure for families.”

Accordingly, employers — especially small companies — may find themselves spread thin, too, coming up with new ways to work that recognize the burden working parents are grappling with. According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., rising to the challenge is a necessity.

“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,” Senior Vice President Andrew Challenger said in a statement. “Those companies need to rethink that. A failure to accommodate working parents in the pandemic will damage morale, future recruitment efforts, brand recognition and, ultimately, the bottom line,” hs said.

Here are his recommendations for how companies can help their employees who are struggling with the demands of parenting in a pandemic.

Take Flexibility To The Next Level

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 day care facility closes unexpectedly. Conduct meetings at different hours, not always between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

SquareFoot CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum told Bisnow early in the pandemic: “Of my four direct reports, one has twin 16-year-old daughters, one has two boys ages 1 and 3, one has a six-months-pregnant wife and a two-and-a-half-year-old, and one has three daughters — two months, two years and four years. Right now, as a company, we just need to be flexible and understanding.”

“We are extremely lucky that over the past couple years we’ve built out an amazing leadership team with a lot of trust," he added. "If someone needs to go for a walk with or feed their kids, we can trust that work doesn’t stop getting done. We focus on real-time reprioritization.”

Beyond flexibility, Challenger recommends companies create systems and train employees to share responsibilities, create backup staffing plans for essential tasks, and arrange for teams to share projects so, in the event that parents have an emergency to tend to, their team can have their back.

Offer Child Care Assistance

U.S. child care costs are among the highest in the world. According to the Brookings Institute, a single week of full-time day care may run $196 per child or around $10K per year. Other estimates are much higher and vary by geography. In Washington, D.C., full-time day care for one infant or toddler for a year costs $22K— more than a year of tuition at the University of Virginia.

A Challenger survey in June 2018 found that just under 5% of U.S. companies offered on-site child care, while 16.7% offered other kinds of child care benefits to attract and retain talent. More than a third didn’t even offer maternity leave. A more recent Clutch survey, in January of 2020, found that only 6% of U.S. companies offered any kind of child care benefits.

During the pandemic, The Washington Post reported Microsoft, Google and other large companies expanded paid leave in an effort to ease the financial burden on families, and for companies that are not in a financial position to do so, Challenger recommends re-examining paid leave policies, subsidizing child care, or building a day care referral network.

Make Sure The Home Office Isn’t An Added Stressor 

At the office, employers make sure their teams have everything they need to be productive, from the floor up. Now that employees are working from home at least part of the time, Challenger recommends assessing whether households are equipped to handle the technological and connectivity-related demands of remote work and remote schooling. “Consider providing adequate Wi-Fi or extra devices so workers may remain as productive as possible,” the firm said in its report.

For example, at VTS, the company provides its staff with a budget for setting up a work-from-home space. For employees with children, they also cover Disney+ subscriptions.

Pay Attention To Employees’ Mental Health Needs  

If being a working parent has always been a probable source of guilt, exhaustion and stress, the pandemic has taken this to extremes, with parents wondering if they will be forced to choose between parenting and paycheck. The stakes are high and the tax on employees’ mental health is high, too.

Stress hurts productivity, so employers have nothing to gain and everything to lose in not helping ease their teams’ concerns, and many are grasping for ways to help. 

Approaches range from Optima’s new biweekly, wellness-focused newsletter full of mental health resources to VTS’ in-house mental health counselor, available to employees on call, remotely. But no matter how good the perks or benefits, companies shouldn’t stop there: 

Challenger recommends managers make it a routine to check in on the parents in their teams, support healthy work habits, and — going back to the need for flexibility — recalibrate working hours, workload and other factors as needed to help mitigate stress and enable balance. 

“Communication should not always be about deadlines and responsibilities,” Challenger's report recommended. “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.”