Child care shortages and concerns are complicating a return to the workplace for many parents as the coronavirus continues to spread and options remain unclear for schools, camps and day cares. There are no easy solutions on the horizon for these parents or the companies that employ them.
"We're still very much in a learning mode," said Robert A. Boonin, an employment attorney with Dykema in Detroit and Ann Arbor. "Employees and employers will be making some hard decisions in the very near future, but I don't think there's a concensus about the best way to go forward."
Working parents have been helped by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), a federal program that pays for 10 weeks of family leave when child care is not available due to COVID-19. The Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division on June 26 issued a field bulletin explaining how the program works in relation to canceled summer programs and what documentation parents need to provide so that employers qualify for a tax credit. The program only applies to companies with 500 or fewer employees and expires at the end of the year.
In addition, employers have been offering flexibility as feasible, including in some cases by providing backup child care or paid leave so that exhausted parents and other caregivers can recharge.
"To the extent employers are able to offer flexible work schedules and generous leave, this can go a long way to maintaining a heathy and productive workforce," wrote Rachael McCann and Megan Sowa, health and benefits director and assistant director, respectively, at global consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. But McCann and Sowa cautioned employers against adopting a permanent solution while the situation evolves and before considering all possible implications.
"There is an undeniable need for caregiving across the spectrum (from child care to eldercare and everything in between)," they wrote. "Rushing to implement a solution that only covers one end of the spectrum, such as backup child care, may leave gaps and unintentionally neglect certain working caregiver needs."
Flexibility, and Beyond
To curtail the spread of COVID-19, most states in the early spring closed schools and allowed child care centers to remain open only for employees considered essential, such as health care workers. Nonessential workers who remained employed were suddenly working from home while also providing full-time care and education to their children. As states reopen, those orders fall away, but schools and care facilities are still under restrictions that will limit availability.
Employers have responded to the child care crisis primarily by offering flexibility to harried caregivers, a mid-May survey of HR professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found. This included flexible work hours (86 percent), full-time remote work (71 percent) and reduced work hours (63 percent).
Accommodations with direct costs were far less common, with 9 percent of employers providing or considering child care subsidies and 7 percent providing or considering onsite child care services.
U.S. employees appreciated these flexibilities, but about half still thought their employer had unrealistic expectations about what they could accomplish while caring for others, according to a survey by communications consultancy APCO Worldwide.
"For employees with younger children, especially under 5, it's a very practical issue," said Charles Bonello, chief executive officer at Vivvi, a New York City-based provider of child care services to small and midsize employers. "Online learning is not working for those children. They need to be engaged. So the question becomes, when are working parents supposed to work?"
Job-sharing, reduced hours and unpaid leave also may be helpful to working parents, but at a significant cost in lost income.
A handful of employers have gone beyond flexibility by sending screened care providers or teachers into homes so that employees can focus on their jobs without neglecting their children, said Bonello, whose company provides this personal backup care in addition to operating child care centers. "Some employers are paying for a few days a week or subsidizing part of it," he said. "The demand was great pre-COVID. Now it's back."
Even before COVID-19, personalized backup care for parents or other caregivers was growing in popularity as an employer-provided perk, with nearly 1 in 5 employers offering it in early 2020.
Emily Paisner, director of Boston-based Care@Work, which provides child care referrals and backup care for employees, said demand from corporate clients has grown since March, when the pandemic "brutally revealed that without care, employees can't work."
Since March, employers have added coverage for 200,000 employees through the service and many are providing backup care, she said. "I think it's a wake-up call for companies that they need to re-evaluate their strategies."
Longer-Term Solutions Needed
Will the COVID-19 crisis spur a fundamental change in the way child care is delivered in the U.S.? Advocates who've lobbied for a more rational system hope so, and say that without it, a greater crisis lies ahead.
"People are realizing we have to deal with this in a structured way," said Bonello, who compared the child care industry to the restaurant business, with a few major players and a fragmented ecosystem of independent caregivers who may not recover from the extended shutdown. "Even before the pandemic, there were 14 times more children under 5 than available space in downtown Manhattan. Now it's going to be way worse."
But an employer-driven solution would be a change from recent years. A comprehensive benefits survey by SHRM in 2019 found that child care benefits held steady or decreased from 2015 to 2019, with 11 percent of employers offering a referral service for child care providers and just 4 percent offering a subsidized child care program.
Boonin was skeptical that would change significantly. "I'm not sure this is going to be the driver for child care reform," he said. "If the schools can't manage right now, why do we think day care centers can? Young children can be carriers. Until we get a vaccine, I don't think there's going to be an answer that makes everyone whole. For now, employers are going to have to weigh what they can do on a case-by-case or business-by-businesses basis."