When COVID-19 hit, many working parents suddenly had to migrate to a home workspace along with their kids, who were sent home from closed schools.
One of those parents, Drisana Rios, formerly an account executive at Hub International, a San Diego insurance brokerage firm, started working remotely full time while looking after her two young children. In a new lawsuit filed against Hub International, she alleged that the company fired her because she didn't keep her kids quiet while on business calls. In her lawsuit, she is alleging wrongful termination, gender discrimination and retaliation, reported The New York Times.
In a statement from her lawyer, Rios said that she worked harder than ever before while at home, continuing her normal responsibilities. She also said she let her employer know when she was available for calls. However, she claimed calls were still scheduled during times when she was feeding her children or putting them down for a nap. Rios added that her employer told her to "take care of [her] kid situation."
"It was extremely difficult, but I managed to meet all the deadlines," said Rios, who has a 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. "There were some days where I had to work late to meet rush deadlines or any duties I couldn't finish during the day because I had to care for both of my young kids at the same time."
Rios' attorney, Daphne Delvaux, said Rios hired a nanny to help out, but "by the time the nanny started, Ms. Rios was already in the bad graces of her employer."
A spokesperson for Hub International declined to respond, saying the company could not comment on pending litigation, according to The New York Times.
While some companies are adjusting their expectations for working parents, others may not be—especially as lockdowns extend into the fall. If employers can't accommodate working parents, however, they could face a barrage of issues, including legal action against them.
By not accommodating working parents, employers may be sending a negative message to other employees.
"If the company is viewed as inflexible and unaccommodating to work-at-home parents, it can lead to negative employee morale," said Karen Roberts, HR director at Flaster Greenberg in Philadelphia. "The [employees'] concern is that it could happen to them, as well, [which causes] resentment of an increase in workload on others due to the loss of a team member, and the perception that the company is not supportive of its employees."
It could also lead to legal battles, said Katie Erno, an attorney with Crowell & Moring's labor and employment group in Washington, D.C. Employers subject to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFRCA) that deny qualifying employees the leave to which they are entitled may be sued by employees in private litigation, as well as by the Department of Labor, she said. An employer could be subject to penalties and damages for unpaid wages and attorney fees and costs, as well as be required to reinstate the employee.
"Employers may also face legal exposure under state and local leave laws," said Erno. "Some jurisdictions also include familial status as a protected category in their equal employment opportunity laws."
Since there is no end in sight to the COVID-19 restrictions, now is the time for HR to determine solutions to help ease the burden for working parents. Here are some ideas from experts.
Understand the New Laws
Employers need to learn the ins and outs of the FFCRA before creating a plan for working parents. According to Erno, employers covered under the act need to provide a total of 12 weeks of partially paid leave to employees whose children's day care or school has closed due to COVID-19.
"Other state and local jurisdictions have passed their own COVID-19-specific leave laws that may apply to employers not covered by the FFCRA, or mandated additional leave on top of FFCRA leave," she said. "The FFCRA allows this leave to be taken intermittently, so employers and employees can agree to a flexible schedule."
Since many public and private schools in the U.S. will be limited to virtual classroom learning in the fall, Erno said employers should "reach out to employees now to understand what, if any, accommodations they may need in advance of the fall term and open up that dialogue."
Develop a Remote-Work Policy for All
Once employers have learned the FFCRA and state-specific laws, they should create a policy that establishes expectations and guidelines, as well as communicate updates regularly, said Marcia Payton, a law partner at Riebling & Payton PLLC in Mount Kisco, N.Y.
"A sound policy will outline which employees can work from home, what hours they are expected to work, and set forth a set schedule of virtual meetings or conferences," she said. "The policy must also adhere to any city, county or state guidelines, as failure to do so could result in steep fines or penalties."
The policy needs to be communicated to employees with as much notice as possible so they will have time to make adjustments when necessary, she said.
"If a remote-working policy is correctly established, it should alleviate legal issues an employer may face when terminating an employee who is working from home," said Payton. "Essentially, a work-from-home employee must be treated the same way he or she is treated in the office, and a sound policy will outline that."
Allow Flexible Working Hours
During the typical 9-to-5 day, parents may have to look after their children for a portion of that time. They may be able to log on and work only before the kids wake up in the morning or after they go to bed at night. As long as you don't need employees to be in mandatory meetings, you should consider letting them work flexible hours, advised Erno.
"Employers should encourage employees to discuss these types of scheduling issues and work with employees to set expectations around availability," she said.
Engage in Ongoing Dialogue
While creating a remote-work policy is key, it should not be set in stone. As needs change throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, HR should be in touch with working parents to ensure they have everything they require to stay productive.
"Leaders should be expected to check in more often and offer additional support when possible," said Raychel Yokem, diversity, inclusion and affirmative action manager at Growmark Inc. in Springfield, Ill. "The leader may also be the one asking for additional support and should communicate their needs with their team, as well. Extending empathy and grace will be critical for all businesses."
Ensure an Accommodating Workplace
Even though it can seem like accommodations are a hindrance to productivity, when carried out correctly, they are not. Throughout the pandemic, HR must answer to working parents' needs and concerns to create an inclusive and constructive environment for all.
"With employees, like nearly everything else in business, success is predicated on doing things better than the competition," said Adam Gersh, employment law attorney at Flaster Greenberg in Cherry Hill, N.J. "Workplaces that are supportive, flexible, reasonable and accommodating will attract and retain top talent. Parents are often loyal and dedicated employees."
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
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