Gregg Danzer is an HR director, not a child care expert, but lately he has spent a good part of each day trying to figure out what children need when their school is operating virtually and their parents have to go to work.
His latest project: creating a one-room schoolhouse in the office with Wi-Fi, sufficiently distanced computers and a teacher to help as many as 16 children of employees.
It's just one example of the steps employers are taking as they are increasingly drawn into the child care crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic.
Danzer works at Graham Personnel Services, a Greensboro, N.C.-based staffing firm specializing in such essential industries as manufacturing, distribution and health care. The company has continued to operate at full speed through the COVID-19 pandemic, and many staff jobs simply can't be done from home.
When schools closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19, Graham employees with children, like countless other working parents across the country, continued working and cobbled together day-to-day solutions for their children.
"They kind of worked above and beyond to compensate," Danzer said of the company's staff. "Maybe they thought, 'Summer's coming and we'll have school in the fall.' There was light at the end of the tunnel. But now we all know it's extending into the fall and probably beyond. The short-term toughing-it-out [approach] is just not sustainable."
Now Danzer is looking for ways to take the pressure off Graham parent-employees, including by potentially hiring a full-time teacher. It's worth it, he said. "We're not going to thrive if our people can't concentrate on their work. And they certainly can't concentrate if they're worried about whether their child is safe."
No Relief for Working Parents
Even before COVID-19 was a concern, working parents were hard-pressed to juggle their various duties, said Sarahjane Sacchetti, chief executive officer at Cleo, a San Francisco-based parenting benefits company. "We were racing and duct-taping and always teetering on the brink," said Sacchetti, who has two young children.
Now, she said, after months of school closures and tenuous work-from-home arrangements, working parents—especially women, who often take on a larger share of child care duties—have reached a tipping point. "The resilience is waning. It's just too much."
Cleo, which began as a service for new parents returning to work but expanded to include parents with children up to age 12, recently surveyed working parents in its network. It found that many were less hopeful now than at the start of the pandemic in April, when a similar survey was taken. Fewer had reliable child care (35 percent in June versus 50 percent in April), and plans for reinforcements had failed to materialize for many.
In April, about half of survey respondents expected other family members to help out, but that only happened in 28 percent of the cases. Similarly, 16 percent of respondents hoped to be part of a nanny-share arrangement in April, but only 3 percent had actually joined one by June.
When asked about anticipated top challenges with returning to a physical workplace, respondents were nearly equally concerned about health risks (55 percent), burnout from managing work and home (57 percent), and securing child care (53 percent).
Notably, about one-third of those surveyed in April had either switched from full-time to part-time work or had left the workforce entirely by June, the survey found. Most of those who left were women.
Sacchetti said Cleo has received "intense and urgent interest from employers" in recent weeks as child care concerns have taken an increasing toll on the workforce. "Existing clients are pushing us for more creative solutions," said Sacchetti, who has joined with three other organizations to form Invest in Parents to further the discussion.
Parent Pods and Employers
The imperative for employers to step into the child care crisis grew in late July, as school districts began announcing they would not hold in-person classes.
With school plans for the fall still up in the air, many parents are taking it on themselves to find solutions. Some have joined with friends and neighbors to form small instructional groups for their children. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today have all reported on these so-called parent pods.
Tutors are also in high demand through a variety of providers such as Care.com, which is offering $20 to $30 an hour for teachers who can work with "family pods" as the school year begins in the fall.
Are "employer pods" next?
Megan Sowa, director of health and benefits at business consultancy Willis Towers Watson, advised employers to approach direct involvement in parent pods with caution, in part because they may unintentionally exacerbate inequalities.
"Providing access to technology solutions that allow individuals a platform to form their own care groups or virtual connections with a network of providers, neighbors or relatives may be a better way to support creative care solutions now and post-pandemic, as they can serve as a continued resource for care," she said.
Employers may also consider offsetting child care costs through subsidies or financial assistance, especially for lower-wage employees who may not be able to afford the benefits otherwise, Sowa added.
Understand Employee Needs
Before diving into any solution, employers should find out what their employees need.
"Assessing employee needs through a survey, for example, is a great way to collect feedback on what employees really need to effectively work and care for their family," Sowa said. "It can also help employers avoid spending precious time and resources implementing the wrong benefits.
"What works for one employer may not work for another. Similarly, what works for one segment of an employer's population may not work for another."
Danzer of Graham Personnel created his own survey, working with a committee of parents, and expects to gather the results by early August.
"I'm not a parent, so I have a committee of volunteers—I call them our professional moms—giving me great advice," he said. One example: thinking about young children who aren't able to sit in a classroom for eight hours a day. "Maybe we need a partial work-from-home arrangement for their parents," he said.
Be Creative and Flexible
A recent survey by Willis Towers Watson highlights the actions employers are taking to better support employees with caregiving needs. Nearly 1 in 4 employers plan to enhance caregiving benefits.
"Flexibility remains the most important and most common action that employers can take," Sowa said. "Where an employee can effectively work at home, employers are offering flexible hours to allow them to manage their daytime care responsibilities, including home schooling."
Of course, not all parent-employees can work remotely, and even those who can still need support. To fill this need, many employers are turning to concierge services like Cleo that offer resources such as day care, tutors, nanny shares, music lessons and other creative solutions.
But employers should remember to plan for the long term, Sowa added. "Sustainability is an important consideration. Employers should try to implement sustainable solutions so that employees are not left in a difficult situation should the benefit be taken away or funding [be] exhausted."
In addition, she said, "Considerations around liability, safety, nondiscrimination rules and tax considerations exist and should not be overlooked."
Danzer said he has looked at all the drawbacks to taking on child care and has decided to go ahead anyway, with company leaders' blessing. "The conventional wisdom is there are too many issues, too much liability, too much risk," he said. "Well, operating a business is risky to begin with."
Danzer has learned that the company's liability insurance doesn't exclude helping care for children onsite, so long as the service isn't run as a school or a care center. "If it's a snowstorm in the winter [and schools are closed], people can bring their kids in," he explained. "This is similar, more of a long-term temporary solution."
It may not be a perfect solution—those don't exist right now, Danzer said—but it may be a lifeline for employees worn out by months of making do. "People are craving some stability."