Employers can’t ignore America’s childcare crisis any longer. How they can fix it

October 22, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC
Drop-off time at a day-care center in Cambridge, Mass. If employers don’t address America’s childcare shortage, “they risk continuing to lose valuable talent and bearing the often-higher cost of hiring and training new people,” writes Lorraine Hariton.
(Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The lack of an affordable, reliable childcare system in the U.S. has long been a challenge for parents. The upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic has turned it into an acute crisis. A recent Catalyst-CNBC survey of 1,000 working parents across the United States found widespread fear and job insecurity; more than half (57%) of working parents said they believe being a parent is a strike against them in the workplace. 

Hybrid school schedules, remote learning, and abrupt closures have disrupted daily life for working parents, especially mothers, who are facing unprecedented mental health, physical health, and financial challenges, too. Data suggests some women are even dropping out of the workforce for the foreseeable future. If employers don’t address these issues, they risk continuing to lose valuable talent and bearing the often-higher cost of hiring and training new people.

Corporate leaders simply can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. Our survey indicates that more employers need to step up and provide meaningful support for their employees. And those that do have childcare and parental support programs must do a better job of communicating about these programs and making sure employees feel comfortable availing themselves of these benefits. 

Here’s what we found:

  • More than a third of parents say they are not aware of plans their employers have in place for parents, or whether these plans exist at all in their company. 
  • Nearly half (49%) of working mothers and 39% of working fathers say they are not aware of any employer-funded childcare benefits. 
  • Four in 10 parents fear it would be a risk to their employment to take advantage of the offerings or benefits available to them through their workplace (42%), and over a third (39%) worry that their employment will be terminated if they ask for them.

Corporate leaders must adopt bold, tangible solutions for employees now. Companies that have long been leaders need to go even further. For example, Bank of America has extended backup childcare payments for parents of children as old as 12 until the end of 2020. It’s also providing daily childcare reimbursements (instead of only partially subsidizing them, or capping dependent care assistance accounts from an employee’s pretax dollars).

At Catalyst, we’ve expanded our existing sick leave, flextime, and flex leave policy options to support employees. We’re enabling employees to reduce their hours to three days per week (21 hours) with a reduced salary, but with no impact to benefits, time-off accruals, or annual bonuses. Employees can also request an unpaid leave or intermittent leave.

5 ways to lead on childcare

More employers need to proactively lead through this crisis and help organizations rethink how work gets done during the pandemic and beyond. Some recommendations include:

Adopting flextime. Consider flextime or flex leave for all, including employees without dependent children, with no career penalty. Flexibility is not just about the day-to-day or week-to-week juggle; it is flexibility across the lifetime of an employee—from childcare to eldercare, and everything in between.

Commitment from the top. Reinforce employee adoption of policies like flexible work with support and communication from the very highest levels of the organization’s leadership. Managers can both model these policies and adjust their team’s workloads to ensure employees can manage to their specific capacities.

Embracing innovation. Develop programs that support more innovative and flexible models of childcare. For example, this could include support for childcare workers who become part of a family’s social pod; at-work, supervised day care; or even innovative worker-share childcare programs for employees who live close to one another.

Rethinking your physical space. Conduct an audit of available office space options for on-site childcare. Work with your local community and educational nonprofits and childcare agencies—can this space be repurposed to safely scale up the amount of childcare available?

Building better home offices. Increase support for at-home technology: Negotiate with technology suppliers so employees can choose to better equip their part-time home offices if necessary. The tradeoff in the cost of commercial office space and reliable technology that aids productivity is worth it.

COVID-19 has laid bare deep inequities in our culture. Employers committed to diversity and retaining top talent must develop innovative solutions and policies to ensure that everyone can participate in the workplace. The future of work is here, and our challenge and opportunity is to create workplaces that work for everyone, even beyond the crisis of the moment.

Lorraine Hariton is the president and CEO of Catalyst.

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