Working parents have been hit especially hard by the pandemic as their child care resources and other support networks have become limited—or disappeared entirely. Child care facilities, including licensed family/group care centers, all over the country have been forced to close or scale back their services and there is a shortage of in-home providers. Those who previously relied on older relatives or retired neighbors are also struggling because of the higher coronavirus vulnerability of those over the age of 60.
As a result, millions of Americans now find themselves in the precarious position of juggling their jobs with their caretaking obligations. The burnout and stress they are experiencing is severe, as are the ramifications to the U.S. economy. With the possibility of more school and daycare closures in the months ahead, it’s critical for employers to consider their child care benefits offerings as well as other creative solutions if they want to retain key talent and maintain diverse, inclusive workplaces.
On August 12, Happify Health hosted a webinar, “Child Care’s Changing Landscape,” to initiate a meaningful, actionable conversation about the impact of Covid-19 on child care and what can be done to accommodate workers who have young children at home. We brought together three panelists with different areas of expertise to share their perspectives:
Patrick Burke, Head of Healthcare for Happify Health, moderated the discussion, which concluded with a live Q&A. What follows are highlights from the session, including suggestions for employers and HR/Benefits Managers who want to support employees and their families during this difficult time.
How Child Care Affects the Economy
“Access to child care has been an essential pillar to our labor market and economy and it has been severely impacted by this crisis” — Michelle Kang
Child care is linked to our economic recovery, as parents cannot return to work (or work from home productively) if there is no one to watch their kids. Women, who still do the majority of caregiving in most households, have been hit especially hard, with many needing to reduce their hours or quit their jobs because their child care disappeared. Their exodus from the workforce not only slows down economic growth but also undermines the progress made toward workplace diversity and reducing the gender wage gap, potentially setting female workers back decades.
While the CARES Act included 3.5 million dollars earmarked for child care, Kang says this emergency funding only scratched the surface and the industry is still in danger of collapsing. Her organization, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, surveyed 5,300 child care providers in June and alarmingly, 40% reported that they anticipate permanently closing if they do not receive assistance soon. Kang stressed that increased investment in high quality child care at federal, state and local levels is needed because it “ensures our businesses can keep going.” Raezer echoed this sentiment: “Unless we raise the visibility of the importance of child care, the economy is going to continue to struggle.”
The Psychological Toll of Instability
“It can be difficult to find solutions when you’re cognitively overwhelmed.” — Beth Derickson
Since the pandemic hit, more than a third of Americans have displayed signs of clinical anxiety, depression, or both. As a therapist, Beth Derickson is on the frontlines of the current mental health crisis. She said she’s seen an uptick in first-time patients and that their levels of anxiety are unusually high. The instability many people are experiencing is a contributing factor, and Derickson noted that it’s especially hard to cope when one is mentally and emotionally fatigued, as many working parents are. Some may also be concerned about losing their jobs if they tell their bosses about their child care issues, further exacerbating their stress.
The good news, according to Derickson: Children are resilient and the more parents can model healthy behaviors like talking openly about feelings and demonstrating comfort around uncertainty (i.e. not being afraid to say “I don’t know”), the more likely their kids will be able to adapt to changes in their routine.
Lessons from the Military Sector
“Partnerships are essential. Even an employer as big as the Department of Defense can’t provide all the child care their people need.” — Joyce Wessel Raezer
In her 25 years advocating for military families through her work with the National Military Family Association, Joyce Raezer saw firsthand how employers who put resources toward making good child care available to their employees can make a difference. She also highlighted the “critical role” of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), but only if employees are made aware of the benefits available to them. Employers who have hired military spouses, recently discharged veterans, or their families can refer eligible employees to Military OneSource which has hourly child care referrals, center-based care information, and options for subsidized care by providers outside military installations, searchable by location.
Raezer also emphasized how beneficial it can be for employers to leverage community connections and reach out to their local family-focused organizations and nonprofits. As she said, “Taking advantage of what work other agencies have done is important to beef up what you can do for your employees.” Larger employers may also be in a position to influence policymakers in their area, from city council members to state legislators. “Employers have a voice as advocates, and the connections to convey the concerns of the people who work for them,” Raezer explained. “They can speak up and say ‘Here are the stories of my workers and the problems they’re facing,’ which could result in improved access to, and funding for, child care if enough business leaders raise concerns.”
Silver Linings & Solutions
“A light has been shone on the importance of child care through this pandemic that has been helpful.” — Michelle Kang
All three panelists said they see tremendous opportunity in this moment and expressed hope that we might emerge with a better infrastructure for child care than existed before. The pandemic has led to increased appreciation for child care providers, as well as greater awareness of the difficulties faced by those working in the field, who on average make $10.72 an hour. New conversations are happening, and parents are coming together to speak out about how lack of child care impacts their lives and their careers.
As the discussion turned to what can be done to counteract the child care shortage, Kang cautioned against compromising on quality and said employers should not settle for solutions that “just put an adult in a room.”
“The best advice I can give benefits managers and employers is that we need to be leaning into our strengths and helping people realize that they are problem-solvers,” Derickson said. “We have problem-solved in the past and we’ll get through this.”
One possibility is to offer on-site child care for your employees. But if that is not an option, or not an option while your workforce is remote, the panelists shared other ideas such as:
● Help employees with children connect with each other by promoting initiatives like parent groups where resources, information, and referrals can be shared. If your company utilizes an instant messaging tool like Slack, consider creating a dedicated channel for parents to reinforce that they’re not alone
● Be flexible and compassionate when it comes to employee requests to adjust hours and/or take time off due to child care issues
● Learn about the available resources in your community to have a better understanding of the existing options (i.e. are you located in a child care desert?)
● Explore partnerships with local organizations or groups who may be able to fill in some of the gaps. Are there other employers in your area who might be interested in collaborating to find alternative solutions?
● Offer financial support for child care via subsidies and/or paid caregiving leave; this white paper has a comprehensive list of suggestions and considerations for each
● Be proactive about communicating to your employees what is provided through their EAP and/or benefits packages
● Consider adding digital solutions that promote mental health and resilience to offset the stress and anxiety many parents in the workplace are experiencing
Ultimately, employers need to remember that child care is not just about the well-being of children — it’s about supporting the well-being and productivity of the entire workforce. As Kang said, “If we don’t have high quality child care options available for our employees, it impacts everybody, whether you’re a parent or not.”
Some of the panelists’ remarks were lightly edited for clarity; a complete recording of the webinar can be accessed here.