Flexibility for Working Parents During COVID-19
1. How aware are companies of the struggles employees with families are facing right now?
Generally speaking, we are acutely aware of what affects us directly, with the effects of the current pandemic being no different. If businesses are helmed by those without children, or even school aged children, leadership may not have the struggles of employees with families at the forefront of their mind. Further, even for those with school aged children, their experiences during COVID my track with their socio-economic status i.e.: being able to afford smaller private schools with waivers, access to internet, other remote-technologies and the countless other things that some families living paycheck-to-paycheck, or those who lost their jobs, or had to give them up to become a “teacher” to their children, may not be able to afford. That being said, if employees fail to speak up, many employers will in turn, be deaf to their struggles; like the old adage goes “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. A manager without children may not comprehend the difficulty parents are having with remote learning.
2. How sympathetic are they to those struggles?
As leaders in the legal industry and employment law experts, our team has discussed the multitude of ways employers and employees can use this opportunity to reshape the status quo of the workforce. Employers should prepare for the impending disruption of parents learning how to balance work, teaching and childcare. Choosing to work should not be a punishment for parents and with countless people being let go and suffering financially, many parents simply can’t afford to not work, or for that matter, pay for private tutors.
Keep in mind that the first day of kindergarten may not be what a parent once hoped for, or that a freshman may be very disappointed in their first day of high school, and the emotional toll that may also exact on parents is extremely important.
Businesses need to get creative where they can: create an inclusive work environment for parents who are responsible for the health and education of tomorrows leaders, and/or provide a stipend for tutors/childcare, or help create “pods” in larger companies around employees who have the relatively same aged children.
That being said, there will always be employers who are not as sympathetic or understanding. If an open dialogue with your employer proves to be unfruitful, consider reaching out to counsel to explore your options.
3. What can employees who need more flexibility ask their companies for?
The first thing employees should do is to start a dialogue with HR and management to explain their situation.
Each employee, regardless if they have children or not, has a unique family situation to navigate. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires certain employers to provide their employees with paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. If the company you work for qualifies for the FFCRA, use it.
Ask for flexible work hours and to work from home, if it is possible to bring your children into work, and if your employer would consider providing a childcare stipend if working from home is not possible. It is important to remind your employer that you want to work, but that your situation during COVID has greatly altered your ability to continue without some changes. Providing extended and flexible working hours, offering child-care stipends, and keeping an open dialogue are paramount not only for the moral good, but a happy employee not bogged down by being a parent, a worker, and a teacher at the same time is a productive employee.
4. Who should they approach those conversations with - HR or management?
Employees should start a dialogue with HR, and in the event your employer lacks an HR department, speak with your direct manager. It is important to remember that your employer may be unaware of your struggles rather than unsympathetic. Alternatively, if there is a fellow parent (mom or dad) in a management position who you believe can advocate for/with you, and you trust them to do so, then they may be a helpful person to discuss your struggles with.
Remember – retaliation for speaking up for your rights as a parent under COVID (like under the FFCRA), or for being fired for having children, can lead to a lawsuit if your legal rights as an employee have been abridged.
5. What are some examples of what they could say to approach those conversations?
Honesty is your best policy; you may not know what you need just yet, but making your employer aware of your difficulties will start both down a road of better understanding. It is okay to be vulnerable; these are unprecedented times, and there are no easy answers. Start with describing the school and grade your child is in. Explain the curriculum, but just know that you don't have to go into detail, and you can simply say: “My son/daughter has distance learning from 8:30 AM to 2:30 PM every day and as a result I need to be at home. Further, my child will require my assistance from time to time. If possible, could my schedule be flexible to allow me to assist my child if the need arises”?
6. How can employees then talk to their co-workers about some of the allowances being made?
An employee is not obligated to discuss any employment arrangements with their coworkers. That being said, if you are worried about team cohesion, discuss how the team should be informed with your HR department or managers. The key to making it work is open and honest communication. Just like how management may be oblivious to your struggles, so too can coworkers. HR/Management should begin to form plans for these issues as they may arise in certain companies. However, just like parental leave, not all “rights” afforded to parents need to be afforded to those who are not. Again, go with caution, and have a plan and consult an attorney where needed.
7. What legal protections, if any, do working parents have right now?
The FFRCA includes an expansion of paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave for many workers, including for parents home with their children due to school and daycare closures. In addition, the CARES Act's Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program expanded unemployment benefit eligibility (PDF) so that many workers who are unavailable or unable to work due to COVID-19 can apply for unemployment. Further, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has the authority to investigate and enforce compliance with the FFCRA. Employers are barred from disciplining, terminating, or otherwise discriminating against any employee who lawfully takes paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave under the FFCRA. Employees can file a complaint under the FFRCA, and employers found in violation of the FFRCA are subject to penalties through the WHD. Additionally, if you feel retaliated against, contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to further explore your options and seek the help of a good employment attorney. Gender and Sex based discrimination are Federally protected under the US Constitution and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and many states have similar laws expanding upon. Additionally, mental health, an issue acutely felt by today’s parents, can also come under the purview of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Ultimately, it is best to explore these issues with both HR and an attorney.
8. What options do employees have if their companies aren't receptive to their needs right now?
Employees should first and foremost make an official complaint to HR (follow the employee handbook where possible as there can be increased damages for plaintiffs if the company fails to follow the procedures they themselves laid out). In the event that your employer continues to be unreceptive to your needs and refuses to start an open dialogue, there are many government agencies who can offer protections. The WHD has the authority to investigate and enforce compliance with the FFCRA, and the EEOC has the authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws in the workplace. In addition, if you feel that your employer has violated your rights, seek the help an employment attorney to explore your options. Again, if you are fired or given no other choice based on your employer’s failure to follow laws, you have legal rights to bring in court.
9. Is there anything else you think our readers need to know on this subject?
Understanding that this is not easy for working parents and their children is vital! Children are losing out on valuable social skills and hands on learning. Teachers are unprepared and lack support from the district, state, and the federal government; meanwhile parents are expected to just ‘figure it out’. It is completely overwhelming and the impact this is having on our children’s’ and parent’s mental health is truly concerning. The first way to support employees with children returning to school is to start asking what they need and involve the entire office if possible. Fostering an inclusive environment where everyone on the team is part of the discussion and the solution will help employees have more empathy for what their coworkers are going through. Employers should routinely check-in with their employees and monitor their mental health. Mental health and financial struggles are issues at the forefront of many American households. Find a way to have an open dialogue about ways you can make this easier on your employees and consult a therapist to see how you may be able to help them. In fact, providing a list of available therapists to your employees as a general email may be helpful during this time as just knowing who or how to call can be one, if not the biggest, hurdle in getting help. For all of you out there experiencing these struggles, I want you to know that you are not alone. We can do this, together.