Like a hurricane making landfall, the childcare crisis caused by school disruptions has reached the US and it is only a matter of time before it arrives in your neighborhood. Most U.S. schools will be reopening in the next few weeks. As of August 6, 17 of the 20 largest school districts in the US have opted for remote learning as the only back-to-school option. Schools in Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi and North Carolina have already opened and the rest of the country is getting a sneak peek at what may lie ahead as students return to in-person learning: All four states have reported cases in some of their schools. If epidemiologists’ predictions hold true and we see a new (perhaps even bigger) spike in COVID-19 cases in the fall, choices parents thought they had for in-person learning or hybrid schedules may well vanish. Most parents will once again need to wear three hats -- employee, childcare provider and education coach. And, once again, the burden will be greatest on women and people of color.
Without schools or caregivers to rely on, some employees, particularly women, are making the difficult choice to leave the workforce or cut back their hours, despite the long-term damage to their finances and careers. As it currently stands women are handling 70% of childcare during business hours. Opening the economy without schooling and childcare in place is a “recipe for a generational wipeout of mothers’ careers”. Black mothers are the most likely to be impacted. Black parents struggling to find childcare are twice as likely as white parents in the same situation to leave their jobs, change their jobs or not take employment at all. In addition, working from home with young children is often not an option for many parents of color who are disproportionately represented in jobs that do not allow flexible or remote work arrangements (and typically increase their risk of exposure to the coronavirus). Single parents and caregivers, of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, have even fewer options.
This untenable situation calls for both governmental support and corporate policy changes. The mental strain employees have experienced -- work disruption, financial stress, and social isolation, just to name a few -- have taken a toll already. Employers must consider Black adults are 20% more likely to report serious psychological stress than white adults. The longer the pandemic lasts the more intense symptoms can become, even resulting in PTSD symptoms and “crisis fatigue” – where individuals feel so overwhelmed they are unclear how to move forward, experiencing a combination of exhaustion, rage, despair, desperation, anxiety, and grief.
Even during a “normal” year, employers lose around $13 billion in potential earnings, productivity and revenue due to inadequate childcare resources. Today, with 73% of parents considering major changes to their work lives due to lack of childcare options, the cost of retaining, re-skilling and recruiting will be another important employer consideration. Post-COVID, many companies may emerge from the crisis with long-term talent problems if they fail to address these workforce needs now.
It’s clear: Childcare support is the new essential benefit. An ongoing Mercer survey (with over 750 employers responding through August 12) found that the great majority are allowing parents to change their schedules or offering other forms of flexibility to help them cope during the pandemic. While that’s important progress, so far only 8% have added or expanded direct childcare assistance, such as onsite, nearsite, or back-up childcare. But we expect to see this number increase. Direct childcare assistance can be especially important for single parents and for those who don’t have the option of working from home – again, disproportionately people of color. While a childcare benefit may have seemed out of reach in the past, vendors have put together new offerings since the onset of the pandemic and it’s worth learning about the options that are available in your locations. For example, some childcare vendors now offer the ability to pay an employee’s trusted relative or friend to care for their children. Referral services for in-home childcare can offer stressed parents somewhere to turn if daycare centers fail to reopen, and a childcare subsidy will help make this a more affordable alternative.
Employers can use this moment to purge suboptimal systems and policies, reinvent roles and enrich the employee experience. Gather and assess employee and demographic data to help determine future needs as well as a projected workforce strategy. Collaborate with your Diversity, Equity & Inclusion division to adjust talent practices that support flexibility. And, to provide the most meaningful support, listen to your workforce.
The time is now for employers to transform adversity into opportunity and take a leadership role to bring about significant and impactful change. Don’t think outside the box - throw the box away altogether. Be passionate and creative and show employees that your organization understands we are all in this together.