Parents who are doing several jobs at once during the pandemic — employee, teacher and full-time child care provider — need help. But whether they get it largely depends on where they work.
Some of the country’s biggest companies, including Microsoft, Facebook and Google, have offered paid time off and subsidized child care. Other companies have gotten creative, hosting online camps or hiring teachers and turning their empty offices into remote schools for employees’ children.
Yet more than three-quarters of working parents say their employers have not provided additional time off or money for child care, according to a survey of 1,081 parents by Morning Consult for The New York Times. Workers who are highly educated and high-earning are significantly more likely to receive time off, the ability to work flexible hours or subsidized child care or tutoring.
The United States has long treated child care as something that families should figure out on their own: It is alone among rich countries with no federal requirement to provide paid leave and is far behind many other advanced nations in subsidizing child care for working parents. But the pandemic has highlighted how dependent the U.S. economy is on child care. Without it, parents can’t work.
“Especially in the U.S., where we’re really lacking leadership right now, employees are looking more and more to workplaces to bridge the gaps in support that parents have traditionally cobbled together on their own,” said Erin L. Thomas, vice president for diversity and talent acquisition at Upwork, which connects freelancers and businesses.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Congress authorized 12 weeks of partial paid leave for parents whose children’s schools or child care centers were closed. But at least half of workers were ineligible, and the crisis has lasted much longer than the leave covered.
Many companies can’t afford to offer extra benefits. Those who can say it’s the humane thing to do for employees — and an investment that will pay off.
“These employees are doing really important work, they’re generating a ton of value to the customers, and it’s probably worth a considerable amount to have them on the job and doing the best they can,” said Shawn Busse, chief executive of Kinesis, a marketing and strategy firm in Portland. Kinesis has hired a teacher to oversee online school for employees’ children.
Employers are having to rethink caregiving benefits for the pandemic because the circumstances are so different from what workers typically need.
Flexibility is the most common benefit employers are providing, according to surveys. Eighty-six percent of 1,087 human resource professionals surveyed by the Society of Human Resource Management said they were offering flexible hours. Half of working parents in the survey by Morning Consult for the Times said their employers were letting them shift their hours.
Less than 10% of employers are offering subsidies to pay for child care. Yet money for babysitters or teachers may be more valuable for parents than flexibility or even time off. Although a parent might ordinarily need a finite period at home for something like the birth of a baby, now children need long-term care or daily in-person help with online school. And while the costs to employers of providing flexible hours are minimal, the costs to workers can be high.
For many parents, it’s unsustainable to continue working during nighttime or predawn hours or to take pay cuts as part of a reduced schedule. Financial benefits for parents also help nonparent colleagues who have been picking up slack, employers say, by enabling parents to get back to work full time.
“Something that stood out in our internal research is, parents really want to keep working,” said Thomas, who has a doctorate in social psychology and focuses on diversity in corporate culture. “I was expecting to hear more, ‘I need a break or to tap out.’ Instead, they are basically saying, ‘How can I hack human biology to serve in three different jobs and never have to sleep?’”
Some companies are trying to address that. Walmart, Procter & Gamble and John Hancock, for example, have offered online camps and classes to keep children engaged. John Hancock’s camp included science projects, story time with the chief executive and pen-pal buddies (3,000 children of employees participated).
“That was real help,” said Erica Noble, a senior director for communications at Procter & Gamble. “Because flexibility helps, but at the end of the day, I have a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old, and they need something to do during the day.”
Last spring, Kinesis, the Portland company, donated laptops for online learning and allowed flexible schedules. When it became apparent that schools wouldn’t open this fall, executives realized that wasn’t enough. The company hired a teacher for online school in its empty office space for the five school-aged children of its 13 employees so their parents could work from home without distractions. If child care centers close again, it plans to do the same for employees with younger children, probably by renting a house and hiring a preschool teacher.
“It’s going away from saying, ‘This is your individual problem and your family’s problem,’ to saying, ‘We see this as a business problem we need to address,’” said Anja Taylor, director of operations at Kinesis, who is sending her two children to the makeshift school.
Representatives at the nation’s 12 biggest companies emphasized how much employees’ needs vary right now, and most said they encouraged employees to talk with their managers about the particular support they may need. They also emphasized that workers without young children are receiving benefits, too. In many cases in which the companies granted paid time off, it applied to any employee who needed it, including for elder care, illness or mental health.
In addition to time and money for child care, many companies are providing benefits like COVID-19 sick leave, home-office supply stipends, elder-care support, mental health coverage and parent support groups. Johnson & Johnson gave workers $400 for in-home exercise equipment. Walmart has given three cash bonuses to front-line workers in stores. Visa and Mastercard have promised no near-term layoffs related to the pandemic.
Caregiving benefits are another way the pandemic has highlighted disparities among workers.
One-quarter of parents say they or their partners’ employers are providing time off beyond what they traditionally offer, found the new survey by Morning Consult for the Times. Yet there is a major difference based on workers’ education and income: 29% of those with postgraduate degrees (but only 9% of people without college degrees) have paid time off.
Twenty-one percent of highly educated workers are receiving money for child care or education from their employer, and just 5% to 7% of less educated workers are.
Among the largest companies, some of those with a large share of hourly workers, like Walmart and Amazon, did not give any paid leave for caregiving during school closures. Home Depot gave most full-time hourly store workers two weeks of paid leave for any reason related to the pandemic, including child care. A spokeswoman said the company had spent $1.3 billion on benefits for hourly workers, mostly for paid time off.
The lack of support for working families was a strain on the U.S. economy even before schools and child care services shuttered, and some experts say the pandemic could be the thing that pushes corporations to make long-term changes. Yet it’s unclear whether the new caregiving benefits will continue when the pandemic ends.
In the industry group survey of human resource professionals, about half said that while their companies would help with child care when people returned to their workplaces, the companies planned to return to their pre-pandemic policies once life returned to normal. Just 1 in 10 said their companies planned to keep their new child care policies indefinitely.