California Workers Seek Flexibility as Schools Continue Online This Fall

By June Bell August 6, 2020
Parents and child working at kitchen table

California's new academic year begins soon, but for many students, going back to school means logging in to classes from home. As the state's coronavirus cases rose steadily through the summer months, its largest school districts abandoned plans for in-person or hybrid education programs.

Working parents will once again be juggling online meetings and projects while trying to keep younger children on task during school hours. Employers committed to helping their workforce manage those competing demands can support employees with a variety of programs and options.

"The big words are 'flexibility' and 'creativity,' " said Leonora "Lenny" Schloss, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Los Angeles. Some choices include flexible work hours and leave policies, expanded child care benefits and temporary unpaid leave.

California workers with young children have been performing a balancing act since mid-March, when Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the state's 40 million residents to shelter in place. Workers hastily set up home offices, and schools pivoted to online learning. Millions of California families were affected. In 2019, at least one parent was employed in about 91 percent of U.S. families with children under age 18, and both parents were working in about 64 percent of families, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

SHRM Member-Exclusive Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Starting School Offsite

The nation's second largest school district, Los Angeles Unified School District, will begin the school year Aug. 18 with 600,000 students in remote classes. The nearly 53,000 students in the San Francisco Unified School District will start their school year from home Aug. 17. Students in San Diego, Sacramento and Santa Ana school districts will also be learning at home.

Many parents have already used up a patchwork of leave time, Schloss said, including the leave paid at two-thirds of their regular pay rate available under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), and at least three days of state paid sick leave.

One option to help frazzled parents is flexible hours or shifts. Parents of school-age children may prefer to tackle several hours of work early in the morning, sign off to supervise their children, and then return in the afternoon or evening to complete their workday, said Joseph Ortiz, an attorney with Best Best & Krieger in Riverside. Several of his clients in the utilities and manufacturing sectors offer this type of scheduling, which appeals to both parents of young children, as well as employees who prefer atypical work hours.

Managers should remind nonexempt workers that they must take mandated meal and rest breaks even when working flexible schedules, and they should carefully track their hours so they don't log unapproved overtime, said Michelle Lee Flores, a Los Angeles-based employment lawyer.

Switching to an alternative workweek schedule—defined as more than eight hours of work in a 24-hour period without overtime pay—requires the support of at least two-thirds of the affected workers, Ortiz said. So a business that wants to move to four 10-hour workdays a week, for example, would require permission from at least 66 percent of its affected workers.

Help for Parents

Telecommuting parents who need flexible hours recently received some support from the U.S. Department of Labor. Workers typically must be paid for all hours between the beginning and end of their workdays. But to encourage flexibility during the COVID‑19 crisis, the department clarified that employees who telework in chunks of time throughout the day need to be paid only for the time they are actually working, not for the hours between, Ortiz said.

Another option to aid working parents with dependent care flexible spending accounts is to allow them to eliminate or change their payroll contributions. Parents who expect to use little or no child care or after-school care through the end of 2020 can discontinue their contributions for the remainder of the year. This could save thousands of dollars for parents who had elected to have the $5,000 maximum deducted from their paychecks over the course of a year. "You're buying the goodwill of your employees, and it can be very helpful to them," Schloss said.

Some full-time employees may ask to work part time until their students can safely return to onsite learning. But if exempt workers who transition to part-time work don't earn enough to retain their exempt status, their employer will have to reclassify them as nonexempt and provide meal and rest breaks, as well as overtime pay, Schloss explained.

A last resort for overwhelmed employees—whether or not they are parents—is a temporary unpaid leave of absence. "It's not that great, but it's something for those employees you don't want to lose," Schloss said.

Managers can help create a less stressful teleworking culture for all employees by eliminating the expectation that e-mail and texts require immediate responses, Flores said. She recommended that business leaders cut themselves some slack, too: "Don't convey to your workforce that you're always on."

June D. Bell regularly writes about California labor and employment issues for SHRM.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs

Reminder: California Voting Leave Poster

At least 10 days before an election, California employers must post the Time Off to Vote notice.

At least 10 days before an election, California employers must post the Time Off to Vote notice.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.