The childcare crisis: How employers can step in to help
Commentary

The childcare crisis: How employers can step in to help

Figuring out what school will look like next month is THE hot topic. Our Executive Director,  Mira Browne, joined the National Parents Union on Facebook live last week where she shared:  

Schools, parents and teachers are shouldering the burden alone. Somehow we’re supposed to solve the world’s problems (remote learning + the childcare crisis) by ourselves while policy-makers and business are just sitting back. Parents are starting to be really angry by that.

With increasingly more districts and schools announcing 100% remote learning through the fall and winter of this year, parents are feeling crushed by the pressures of balancing full-time parenting, part-time teaching, and working. There is an opportunity right now for employers to not only recognize this very real conundrum their employees are facing, but to also step in. We’ve looked at what’s happening in other countries and offer “out of the box” solutions that are being successfully implemented👇🏾.
During this pandemic, 60% of parents in the U.S. have been without childcare. This has had a major impact on their ability to do their jobs with nearly a third of the nation’s workforce having children at home.

In a double whammy, parents in the U.S. have spent double the time they usually do on education and household tasks, that’s the equivalent of another full-time job. Many parents, particularly those with young children, are concerned about their performance at work and are getting less sleep. All of this while millions of Americans are without jobs, and many more worry about the possibility of losing their iob.

How employers have responded to this childcare crisis

Childcare was already a crisis before the pandemic even started. Pre-COVID-19, only 4% of employers subsidized childcare with another 4% offering non-subsidized care. Since the outbreak, the most common accommodation has been allowing flexible daily schedules. As part of their blended school reopening approach this fall, New York City is also offering childcare to some parents, regardless of ability to pay, so that they can go back to work. However, now that work-from-home is extended for the foreseeable future for those whose jobs can afford it, some employers are pulling back from that flexibility in an effort to increase productivity.

As parents, we are making hard tradeoffs that put our families or our livelihoods in jeopardy.

There are multiple ways to solve this crisis

Below, we start to explore what longer-term solutions could be to help parents stay in the workforce, while also being available to support their kids with remote learning and school. Here are some for their consideration.

✅  Flexible working
Once the intention starts at the highest levels of management at a business, flexibility can become a reality. For instance, Finland leads the world in embracing a flexible working culture: it has a culture of trust, equality and pragmatism, work-life balance, and the Working Hours Act that gives the majority of full-time employees the right to decide when and where they work for up to 50% of their working hours - making this country a good example of employers and policy-makers working together to affect change. In Portugal, employees with children under the age of 12 may request part-time or flexible work, and those with children under 3 years of age can request to work from home. In the Netherlands, any organization with 10 or more employees must allow employees to ask for an increase or decrease in working hours or a change in location.

A culture change is especially needed in the U.S. workplace where employees with working time flexibility may also work the longest overtime hours due to a permanent state of guilt and job insecurity. A shift from “facetime” or being in the office, to getting the work done is a good first step.

Other ways for employers to promote flexibility include:
  •  Term-time working: employees can take leave during school holidays or breaks.
  •  Flexitime: employees can build a bank of hours worked in order to work fewer hours or take time off as needed.
  •  Compressed hours: a focus on work done rather than hours, where employees may work 4 days a week instead of 5, similar to gig workers.
  •  Remote working: working away from the office.
  •  Annualized hours: employees work a fixed number of hours over the year, although they may not be consistent throughout the year.
  •  In-home childcare support: subsidizing childcare for parents who have younger kids are home, are homeschooling, or having older kids are home during school holidays or sick days.
  •  Job share: project responsibilities are shared between two or more employees.

✅  Women-friendly policies
Back in April, a United Nations study warned that COVID-19 risked reversing decades of progress concerning gender equality in the workforce. Months later, we are clearly seeing the effects of the pandemic on women. 

It is no secret that women bear a disproportionately higher burden of family care - for children, aging parents, or spouses who may be ill - than do men, and are unfairly penalized in the workplace for taking on these responsibilities. Pre-pandemic, 43% of highly qualified women with children drop out of the workforce or off-ramp for a temporary career break. 31% of these women would not leave if they had access to flexible work schedules. Women are paid 80-83 cents for every dollar that men are paid at work and pay a “motherhood penalty” - mothers’ pay lags behind similarly educated and experienced men and women without children. Women are also 21% less likely to be promoted than male co-workers and are often the first to be laid off. This MUST change.

There are several good examples of what this change could look like. To start, we have only to look to the past. From 1943-46, U.S. involvement in WWII gave rise to the social and economic need for women to join the paid workforce. Congress amended the Lanham Act to subsidize childcare centers for the children of parents engaged in wartime production. But the Lanham centers closed shortly after the war ended, a fact bemoaned by Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “Many thought they [the centers] were purely a war emergency measure. A few of us had an inkling that perhaps they were a need which was constantly with us, but one that we had neglected to face in the past.”

There are other examples to learn from. In Belgium, employees are entitled to a “career break”, where they can reduce their working hours by 20% for 5 years, work half-time for 1 year or take unpaid time off for 1 year. Additionally, most Western European nations have legal provision for paid or unpaid parental leave during which time the employee’s job is secure, often for upto a year.

✅  Work-life balance for both parents
Better work-life balance is needed by BOTH spouses - as parents are increasingly sharing parenting and household responsibilities, and equitable sharing cannot happen unless both parents have the time to contribute.
  • Pay for overtime: American workers are working longer hours in part due to job insecurity. A University of Akron study has found that “the most consistent family characteristic predicting imbalance is being a parent. The most consistent work characteristic predicting imbalance is hours worked.” Under federal guidelines, an employee who earns $455 a week or $23,660 a year is exempt from overtime pay. An update to these guidelines is long overdue.
  • Don’t forget the gig economy: Freelancers and gig workers generally don’t have access to the protection offered by employee unions and laws. However, it is estimated that 43% of U.S. workers will be part of the gig economy this year, either as primary or secondary jobs. It’s imperative that their rights be protected through unemployment benefits, health insurance etc.
  • Upskilling employees: Especially important in the verticals such as manufacturing and technology, offering reskilling and upskilling opportunities to workers helps curb the “clock in clock out” culture, curbs unemployment and ensures that workers with a growth mindset can continue to learn.

It’s clear now that COVID-19 will be impacting our lives for the next year or longer. To weather this crisis, we have to solve its challenges together and reset existing norms. It’s an opportunity for parents to recalibrate our relationship with our kids, for schools to adopt newer, better instructional methods (read our Future of Education series, and for employers to adopt policies that reflect the reality of working parents.

This was originally published in our weekly newsletter edition on July 21, 2020.