The month of August brings with it familiar sensations. The onslaught of back-to-school advertisements. The rush to finish summer reading assignments. The frenzied shopping trips for clothes and supplies. And for parents, the most treasured sensation of all: the anticipation of a return to normalcy when their kids head back to school.
They arrive like clockwork every year—except, of course, in 2020.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still active, working parents are coming to grips with the reality that many public schools will not have full-time in-person instruction this fall. As a result, this August they are experiencing a new set of sensations—namely, anxiety over resuming the remote-learning experiment from the end of the school year (which many assumed they would never have to repeat); stress over juggling that endeavor with their job responsibilities; and concern about retaining their sanity in the midst of it all.
This isn’t just a problem for working parents. It’s an issue for their employers as well—especially businesses that genuinely care for their employees and their wellness. As the school year begins, these businesses will be asking themselves how they can best support employees with schoolchildren at home. To answer that, they will have to consider a preliminary question: is it even possible for those employees to manage their work and their childcare responsibilities?
Think of single parents, parents of large families, and employees who for whatever reason, do not have assistance from a spouse with childcare. In honest conversations with employees, employers may find that the answer for some is no. Regardless, both sides can take solace in the fact that whatever answer they arrive at, there are options to preserve the employer-employee relationship.
When It’s Too Much
If it’s not realistic for an employee to do their job while their child attends school from home, that doesn’t mean the employer has to cut ties with them forever—or at all. Instead, they can temporarily remove one of the two major demands on their overwhelmed employee: their job responsibilities, or their children’s education.
Easing Job Responsibilities
Leave Options. Depending on the size of the company, employees may have the option of taking paid leave from work under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFRCA). FFCRA leave can be taken by employees who are unable to work (or telework) because of the need to care for children whose school or child care provider is unavailable due to COVID-19. Employers subject to the FFCRA must provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave and up to 12 weeks of expanded family and medical leave (of which up to 10 weeks may be paid) to eligible employees. This FFCRA leave can provide a valuable reprieve to working parents who, between work and childcare, have reached their breaking point.
Employers, of course, can also create their own paid or unpaid leave policies—and this is an apt moment to consider them.
Furloughs. For companies that don’t have the legal obligation or resources to offer paid leave, furloughs are another option. Furloughs place employees subject to them on leave, but still allow them to receive unemployment benefits, as well as employment benefits like health care, during their absence. In the meanwhile, their jobs are held open for their ultimate return. While this option is not free of risks (a common quandary is how to fill the employee’s role during the furlough, yet still keep the job open), it may be appropriate, especially in industries that have experienced a slowdown in the pandemic.
The Employer Provides Schooling or Childcare
Childcare or Schooling at the Workplace. Yes, it’s a radical thought. But some businesses have the resources and supportive culture to establish a one-room schoolhouse or childcare center right in the office. This is not a solution for every company, and it takes great planning — not to mention wifi, socially distanced computer stations, paid instructors, and more. But this occurred at Graham Personnel Services, a NC-based staffing firm. The kids were in a safe environment, had the technology needed, and support from a paid teacher. There are liability issues and other risks, but for the right employers it’s an avenue worth considering.
Stipend for Childcare or Tutoring. This is a middle ground option short of creating an in-office school. Even so, providing a stipend for valuable employees to help cover childcare or tutoring expenses could go a long way toward easing that burden—and keeping them productive in the fall.
When Employees Can Manage
When employees can juggle their jobs and childcare, that’s great—but it doesn’t mean that employers can or should forget about accommodating them. There may be legal risks associated with such an outlook (particularly, for instance, those demanding that employees return to busy offices), and there most certainly are reputational ones. Companies will be judged by how they treat their employees at this moment. Employers need to ask themselves if it is worth losing valued employees, or their good name in the marketplace, because they were too rigid.
We recommend, instead, that employers exercise maximum flexibility with employees who are caring for children at home this fall. To the extent possible, we suggest they do the following:
- For employers with offices, allow employees the choice of work remotely or at the office.
- Give employees flexibility in when they perform their work.
- Limit hard deadlines.
- Respect boundaries. Ask employees to clearly block out times when they can be available for meetings, and when they cannot—and then respect them.
- Understand that not every meeting has to be a video meeting. People working remotely may not be camera ready at times. Allow turning off the video on conference calls.
- Over-communicate with employees. Regularly check in one-on-one to avoid miscommunicaton, accidentally ghosting, and isolation.
- Check in with employees about family issues they have shared. These are difficult times with anxieties that extend beyond the health implications of COVID-19. Parents are worried their children are not learning; worried their jobs are at risk if they are not physically present; and anxious about their financial security in a recessionary environment.
This is not the August that anyone expected in January. The rites of the season have been upended in these extreme times, which are demanding great things from employees with children learning from home. Smart employers will respond with their own extreme measures to accommodate them—including anything from teaching their children, to scheduling a conference call at 6:00 p.m. to account for a child’s geometry lesson.
Eventually, the season of this pandemic will pass, and we will again have normal Augusts in which back-to-school shopping registers as a major worry. When we do, all employers will want to be remembered as having helped us get there.