Pandemics have a way of revealing the deep-seated problems in society. It should come as no surprise, then, that COVID-19 has reminded us not only of significant weaknesses in the American health care system, but also, of the long-ignored issue of child care.
Such concerns became especially evident in the early days of the pandemic as early learning programs switched to virtual operations, forcing parents to scramble for solutions. Some have struggled to juggle the competing demands of remote work and child care, while others are forced to send their children to child care centers in the midst of a pandemic.
Now, with more companies requiring employees to return to work in person, parents are once again put in a tough spot. A May 2020 Boston Consulting Group survey reveals 60 percent of parents lacked out-of-home child care during the height of the COVID quarantine. Others have been forced to navigate a series of tough questions with little guidance: Should they splurge on a nanny or send their infants, toddlers and preschoolers to child care? What about sending children to school? What happens if a parent or child comes into contact with the virus?
Amid these fears, some companies are finally beginning to implement the child care solutions that parents have needed for decades. Now, more than ever, it is in the corporate world’s best interest to ensure that children receive quality care. This, in turn, allows their parents to be as productive as possible.
Today’s child care quandaries may seem dire, but they’re just a more worrisome version of the concerns that have long troubled working parents across the nation. This crisis already loomed large years ago but is only now beginning to receive the attention it deserves. At stake: professionals, the businesses that employ them, and even the broader U.S. economy. We explore these issues in detail below, as well as the promising solutions that might emerge as a much-needed silver lining to the COVID quarantine.
How Child Care Concerns Affect Employees
The quest for work-life balance has long plagued families. This unfortunate reality was reflected in a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center in which 38 percent of respondents claimed that their professional pursuits made it more difficult to be a good parent.
The sheer number of hours worked per week has been a huge concern for years. Just as problematic is the growing expectation that employees will be digitally on call even when they’re technically off the clock.
Long hours on the job may be problematic but would be easier to manage with proper child care. This could help even the busiest employees establish a reasonable work-life balance. After all, workers cannot be fully present if they’re stressed about their children. Many are mentally checked out because they’re so anxious. Others must also be physically absent, as everything from illness to conferences forces them to take time off. These issues are only heightened by the pandemic and the ongoing limitations on in-person schooling.
Even if they manage to show up for every shift, many working parents spend their time consumed by worries about the quality of their children’s care not to mention the sheer cost. It’s no wonder, then, that in the aforementioned Pew Research Center study, over a quarter of surveyed parents admitted that being a working mother or father made it more difficult to advance in their careers.
In addition to preventing professionals from bringing their best selves to the job, child care concerns force many who would love to work to stay home instead. While such decisions are currently impacted by the threat of COVID-19, factors such as scheduling, budgets, and stress have long played into the enduring decision: Should parents pursue a fulfilling career or focus on family matters? Few find it possible to prioritize both.
A growing body of research reveals the impact of child care issues on labor force participation—especially among professional women. In 2016, for example, the National Survey of Children’s Health found that nearly 2 million parents with children under the age of 5 were forced to either quit their jobs or sacrifice promising career opportunities due to problems with child care.
Why Child Care Is Critical for the Corporate Sector
Employees may feel like they bear the burden of child care on their own, but this issue is broader in scope than they realize. While it’s true that most shoulder the expenses and stress without sufficient help, their struggles also have a far-reaching impact on their employers and the economy in general. This is especially true while working from home with children but was already the case long ago.
According to a 2018 study commissioned by ReadyNation/Council for a Strong America and funded by the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, businesses lose, on average, an annual $1,150 per working parent. These losses can be attributed not only to reduced productivity, but also to higher turnover, which naturally occurs as employees are unable to handle the competing demands of work and family. As a result, businesses must spend extra to recruit and train new employees. What’s more, high turnover has a negative impact on workplace morale.
In addition to dealing with a constant cycle of recruitment and training, employers miss out on working with some of society’s best and brightest individuals. Many parents make the decision to stay home early on—and not always because they want to give up their careers.
A noteworthy 2014 Pew Research Center analysis reveals that 11 percent of mothers with professional degrees opt out of the workforce. These women have a great deal to offer, but businesses miss out on their ingenuity and incredible work ethic when they fail to provide flexible work arrangements or access to child care.
Altogether, estimates from the aforementioned ReadyNation study suggest that a lack of viable child care options costs the United States economy a whopping $57 billion per year. This extends beyond individual and corporate problems to affect tax revenue, with losses totaling over $7 billion annually in sales and income taxes. Given the scope of these losses, it’s abundantly clear that improved child care policies and infrastructure could deliver a huge return on investment.
How Employers Can Help
As employees struggle to simultaneously handle remote work and child care, companies are finally beginning to grasp the role child care issues play in productivity, innovation, and profits. Some experts anticipate that this realization will usher in sweeping changes—and that the ensuing evolution of corporate child care will extend beyond the pandemic.
In an effort to retain valued employees and boost their productivity, many companies are now offering to chip in for child care expenses. Some are even looking into onsite solutions to ease the burden of adding child care drop-off into already lengthy commutes.
Bright Horizons CEO Stephen Kramer tells the Boston Globe that many employers now “recognize the need [for child care solutions] is so incredibly great.” To this end, a variety of companies are now working closely with Bright Horizons to develop alternative classrooms situated at or near worksites. In addition to being a boon for parents with infants and toddlers, child care in the workplace may prove helpful for families that require supervision over remote learning activities for their young children.
Not all companies have the capacity to develop onsite child care solutions, but some have explored the possibility of providing in-home care for remote employees. This would address the inherent difficulties of digital work in the COVID era. After the pandemic, this may also be an effective solution for those transitioning back into the workforce following parental leave.
Many other proposed solutions take the realities of COVID into account. For example, jobs that offer online child care help parents keep their children occupied without increasing the risk of coronavirus transmission.
Unfortunately, many of the options cited above are largely limited to profitable companies striving to attract high-level professionals. That being said, employers also have the capacity to assist low-wage workers. Retailers such as CVS and Wegmans, for example, now offer flexible scheduling options for employees with children.
While corporate America can play a role in addressing limited access to child care, far-reaching solutions are also needed. After all, many businesses are now in survival mode and, therefore, are unable to deliver the economic relief their family-oriented employees so badly need—and so clearly deserve.
Lawmakers have proposed bills designed to increase funding for child care infrastructure. On a short-term basis, some local government agencies offer options for essential workers, such as stipends or temporary care at parks and recreation facilities.
In the future, legislators may prove more open to comprehensive child care reform, delivered with the intention not only of improving circumstances for children, but also of empowering the modern workforce.
If COVID has revealed anything about modern child care, it’s the need for skilled early childhood educators and child care providers who understand the needs of today’s families. As we strive for equitable solutions at the governmental and corporate levels, it’s equally important that passionate individuals seek the ongoing professional development needed to serve a young and very promising population.
While the child care situation may seem bleak at present, great hope exists for a system that grants every child a wonderful start in life. If anyone has the ability to fulfill this dream, it’s the child care directors, early childhood educators, and other hardworking, child-oriented employees of tomorrow.
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