08/20/2020 Steve Lovell

Distance learning and childcare: What employers can do to help

Now that a large number of states and school districts have gone public with their pandemic learning plans, we know that “back to school” for many means distance learning either full or part time. A large number of the nation’s students will attend classes virtually, at least for the time being. While staying home is the right move when it comes to containing the virus and (hopefully) getting the pandemic under control, it leaves working parents in a difficult situation.

From the stay at home orders imposed in the spring, to the distance learning needs on tap for the fall, 2020 has left working parents scrambling to fill gaps in childcare. The degree to which these workers have been supported by their employers varies, but many U.S. companies have yet to formulate plans to address childcare demands. According to recent research by the Society for Human Resource Management, of the companies whose employees have returned to the office since stay at home orders were lifted, 42% do not have a dedicated plan to help employees balance care-giving responsibilities. And only 32% of organizations still planning their return to the office have outlined childcare plans.

Government funding thus far has addressed the issue at a provider level, but not with direct support for families. Earlier this year, Congress passed the CARES Act. which allocated $3.5 billion in emergency funding for childcare. Through that funding, 23 states were able to offer grants to providers to help support their businesses during the pandemic. Ongoing supports for the industry remain a question mark as legislators spar over what to include in future relief packages.

What becomes clear through these numbers is that the onus is on employers to step up, beyond the stop gap measures implemented in the spring, to address this area of need. Though many employers created emergency back-up care models, those models may not be sustainable long-term. Creative solutions will be critical on the path forward. Companies must strike a balance between what solutions they are able to subsidize now, and how they can continue to offer flexibility that addresses what working parents need going forward.

It is important to note that solutions to the childcare conundrum don’t solely benefit employees. Workers forced to leave their jobs due to a lack of flexible childcare options can create costly turnover. If employees are forced to leave the workforce en masse, we run the very real risk of losing a generation of working parents. Additionally, companies’ productivity suffers when workers need to take time away to handle child-care responsibilities. According to a 2019 report from the Council for a Strong America, during a typical year employers lose about $13 billion in potential earnings, productivity and revenue due to inadequate child-care resources.

So what can employers do?

Offering flexible hours and long-term remote work, for companies who can make such concessions, can help substantially ease the burden on working families. More comprehensive leave packages will also be a crucial part of the equation. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed in March guaranteed two weeks of paid leave (at two-thirds an employee’s regular pay) to help with the childcare burden, though only about 27% of the U.S. workforce was eligible for the benefit. Expanding on that less-than comprehensive model, many private companies are developing more robust leave policies. Google has extended their paid family caregiver leave policy, allowing eligible employees to take up to 14 weeks of paid time off. Other tech companies have implemented similar benefits; Facebook added an additional four weeks of leave to cover childcare and Microsoft is offering up to 12 weeks. 

Many employers have begun offering childcare stipends for employees to cover the cost of either in-home or on-site care; though on-site care options continue to constrict as providers struggle with diminished capacity. Some businesses are providing additional help by connecting parents with childcare professionals in their home through resources like Care.com’s Care@Work, which helps workers book sitters and nannies through their employer. This model is likely to gain popularity as in-home childcare has become the preferred option for many families looking to lessen the risk of coronavirus exposure.

Though the months ahead, much like the months leading up to this moment, hold significant challenges for working parents; the struggle to balance work and family life is far from new. The pandemic has brought the gaps in our system into stark relief, and has illuminated the fact that, until now the burden has been solely on families. The “just figure it out” model we’ve operated under is no longer viable in our current or post-COVID reality. Access to quality education and childcare is an issue that impacts everyone, as it ensures the U.S. workforce remains competitive domestically and on the world stage. Employers along with legislators must work toward viable solutions for families, as the long-term health of our economy hinges on us getting it right.