Summertime … and the Working Ain’t Easy

Transition from school to summer schedule requires workplace flexibility

By Dana Wilkie Jun 9, 2014

Summer’s at the door, and child care options for working parents with school-aged children are predictably slim: Summer camps tend to start in mid-June and end by early August. Many day cares don’t watch kids past certain ages, and summer nannies and sitters can be expensive.

Piecing together child care during the warm months can be frustrating for parents, and when workers encounter child care glitches, they can be late or forced to miss work or distracted—all of which can lead to reduced productivity.

“The transition from school time to summer time is extremely stressful for families,” said Erin Ramsey, director of the Mind in the Making early childhood initiative at the Families and Work Institute. “It is always a win-win when employers offer support during stressful periods.”

Those interviewed for this story cautioned supervisors against biases that can crop up about parents who need special flexibility during the summer. For instance, managers tend to believe that women who ask for flexible working hours are more likely than men to use the time for personal rather than professional reasons, according to a study that found that bosses are more likely to give flextime to men. The study, Ask and Ye Shall Receive? The Dynamics of Employer-Provided Flexible Work Options and the Need for Public Policy, appeared in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Social Issues.

Many male executives still view work/family conflict as a problem that should be handled by women, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review that was based on research conducted between 2008 and 2013. Add the fact that childless co-workers aren’t always sympathetic about parents being away from the office to care for kids, and the angst level for working parents rises exponentially. In fact, when a former MSN Money columnist asked in a June 2011 blog how readers felt about the issue, one poster replied: “Gee, you have to figure out nine whole days with your own spawn. Well, get over it. Maybe you should have thought about, oh, I don't know, having to take care of a kid before having one.”

Ken Matos, director of research at the Families and Work Institute, said such comments arise from a belief that it isn’t the employer’s responsibility to make child care easy for workers.

“While it is not an employer’s responsibility to provide child care assistance, it is good business to consider how your workforce will be able to attend to their children’s safety and development,” Matos said. “Given a choice between making sure your child is safe and showing up at work, a great many parents will choose their children’s safety. Employers who remove that choice, by providing useful child care options, will see better attendance and attention from employees who would otherwise be distracted by child care responsibilities.”

Kim Kruckel, executive director of the San Francisco-based Child Care Law Center, said summer child care puts particular strain on a parent’s pocketbook and creative energy because the care is often required all day long, every work day. Summer camps can occupy school-aged children from morning until late afternoon, and while some might even offer child care after the camp ends, both can be expensive. For example, in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, a traditional, weeklong YMCA camp costs $205 for a 9 a.m.-4 p.m. program. Those costs don’t include before- or after-camp child care costs. The cost for some sports and specialty camps at public and private schools can run twice that amount or more.

Kruckel said child care subsidies are well-received by employees, although they tend to be rare. “Some companies offer subsidies up to a certain age, maybe $500 a month paid directly to the child care provider or camp.”

Some local governments are enacting laws that require employers to consider workers’ requests for more flexible schedules. In October 2013, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance, which requires employers with 20 or more workers to address any full-time worker’s request for a flexible or predictable schedule to care for children under 18, parents older than 65 or relatives with serious health conditions. The law, which took effect in January 2014, doesn’t require companies to honor the request, but it does require them to discuss the request with an employee no later than three weeks after the request is made and to make a decision no later than three weeks after that.

Kruckel acknowledged that a flexible or work-at-home schedule during the summer requires more understanding on the part of the employer.

“I’m an executive director and, yes, it can try employers’ patience sometimes,” she said, noting that parents may need flexible schedules for several consecutive weeks during summers. “But I think it’s important for employers to focus on the results that are expected, rather than equating presence in the office with productivity, or creating anxiety about whether that person is in the office every single minute of every day.”

Congress is in the middle of reauthorizing the Child Care and Development Block Grant Fund of 2014—grants that are given to states so they can help low-income families pay for child care.

Some ways that employers can help working parents during the summer include:

  • Taking a poll. Learn how many workers are affected by child care issues, then calculate what that might be costing your company. Research what a child care program would cost.
  • Suggesting a nanny camp. Workers can find a few neighborhood families and hire a nanny together. The summer sitter can create a camp-like curriculum for a fraction of the price one might pay for hiring a sitter on his or her own.
  • Encouraging babysitting co-ops. A group of families agree to watch one another’s children, free of charge, which cuts down on the amount of time any one parent has to spend outside the office.
  • Making simple schedule adjustments. This can include allowing employees to work four, 10-hour days rather than five, eight-hour days. “Oftentimes, summer day camps start later than school, so [one option is] allowing employees flexibility in the morning,” Ramsey said.
  • Offering scholarships and subsidies for special summer camps.
  • Encouraging families to use pre-tax dependent care funds, which can be applied toward summer care.
  • Providing a list of community organizations. The local YMCA, Junior League, schools and places of worship often have low-cost programs for children. Hospitals, animal shelters and retirement homes have volunteer opportunities for older children.
  • Requesting feedback. “Supervisors are people who worry about how work will get done, how they will earn their own paychecks and feed their own children,” Matos said. “[They] can get anxious if they don’t feel confident that their teams will do their jobs well. Employees should be proactive and give their supervisors regular updates on their progress and describe how they are able to be productive using flexible work options. Employees should initiate conversations with supervisors to see if the flex options are working for the supervisor and collaborate on improvements that work for everybody. If they don’t give supervisors the opportunity to speak about small things, it’s more likely the supervisor will gather up a litany of small complaints over time and unleash them all at once in a single flex-stopping outburst.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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