By Naomi Leight-Give’on, Program Manager, Meteorite
Last week, Chicago Public Schools — the nation’s third-largest school district — and the Chicago Teachers Union kicked off the year in a deadlock over Omicron and the union’s assessment that schools lacked appropriate safety measures.
On Monday, January 3rd, classes resumed, only to be cancelled the next day after the union voted to transition immediately to virtual instruction. The union maintains that without sufficient testing measures in place amid a rampantly spreading virus, schools are unsafe. The stalemate could delay the restart of school to as late as January 18th.
Regardless of who is right, Omicron-related school closures put renewed stress on parents who don’t have the option to work from home. Many thousands of working parents who were set to return to the office must now scramble for emergency child care — or miss work entirely. That’s bad for business and even worse for workers who don’t have access to paid leave and must now sacrifice a paycheck.
Similar scenarios have played out across the nation, from Atlanta to Detroit, and from Newark to Milwaukee. Already, over 5,000 schools have closed or switched to virtual learning this month as a result of the pandemic. Each one puts additional strain on workers and employers.
Nearly two years after the first wave of school closures from COVID-19, in the face of a virus that may be with us for the foreseeable future and a historically challenging labor market, the business community would be wise to look more comprehensively at business resiliency — specifically, how to keep working parents from joining the great resignation.
Working parents, especially mothers, have borne the burden of remote learning and child care shortages during the pandemic. Many of them — especially from communities disproportionately affected by the virus — never had the option to do their jobs remotely and have had to deal with anxiety about the risks Delta and now Omicron pose to their families.
It’s all daunting enough that nearly 1 and 10 women left their jobs due to COVID-19. Women with lower incomes are three times as likely to leave a job due to COVID-19 than women with higher earnings. What little pandemic support that existed for working families is disappearing. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act expired at the end of 2020 and the enhanced Child Tax Credit currently lacks the Senate support needed to pass for 2022.
So now, despite the many ways the pandemic response has evolved, many parents are still trying to figure out how to remain employed during a COVID-19 surge without open schools or additional support for child care.
Meanwhile, businesses are facing challenges of their own: labor shortages, employee turnover, and absenteeism have contributed to supply-chain disruptions, service delays, burnt-out employees and disgruntled customers.
An answer to these twin challenges facing parents and their employers may be found in businesses expanding their support for working parents and considering ways to help schools stay open safely.
Companies have options available to them. For starters, they should allow parents who can work remotely to do so. For those who are required at the workplace, flexible scheduling can help working parents accommodate an irregular school schedule.
Another simple step: Provide paid time off for working parents to get their children tested for COVID-19, vaccinated against COVID-19 and caught up with other routine immunizations. This is especially crucial for lower-income parents. A recent poll found that half of all parents making $50,000 or less annually are concerned about being able to take time off to get their 5-to-11-year-olds vaccinated. That’s more than double the rate for parents with higher incomes.
Then there are ways companies can assist more directly. Forming relationships with local school districts and PTA leadership may identify ways that businesses can apply their unique capabilities to the needs of schools, whether that be in helping to provide testing, high-quality masks for students and teachers, or other local solutions.
Companies can also expand the protections they are providing their employees to the wider community. Where preschools and daycares are struggling to provide frequent COVID-19 testing, companies with the resources to provide on-site testing for their own employees could consider extending that capacity to preschool and child care workers.
Likewise, companies could consider purchasing and donating high-quality masks to local K-12 school organizations, preschools and childcare centers. At the beginning of the pandemic, when PPE were in short supply, people were encouraged to wear at least a cloth mask. Now, N95- and KN95-rated masks are widely available and should be nearly universal, as they are much more effective than cloth or surgical masks at preventing the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Finally, companies can look at more creative solutions, such as providing child care stipends or contracting with child care providers for backup when parents must contend with unexpected school closures. And, they can create an Employee Resource Group for working parents to help find parent-driven solutions to urgent child care needs.
There are numerous benefits to these types of actions. Investing in safe and open schools, expanded child care and flexibility for working parents will bolster employee morale and mental health, increase health equity and reduce absenteeism and turnover. These proven measures will also give employers an edge in hiring. And, now that companies must disclose their “human capital” resources and measures annually to the Securities and Exchange Commission, these types of actions to support working parents could position publicly traded companies favorably with current or potential investors.
To be sure, businesses alone cannot solve the current crisis. At the same time, the pandemic has taught us that the private sector is firmly a part of the public health system. Through the Health Action Alliance initiative that I help lead, we provide free tools and training to thousands of businesses to help strengthen their response to COVID-19, support working parents, and cultivate safer and healthier workforces. As companies look to weather this latest public health challenge, investing in working parents and their families is an obvious — and valuable — place to start.