Traci Wells was at a school board meeting when she found out the springtime balancing act between her job and helping her children with online schooling would stretch into the fall.
“I was like, I cannot do six more months of this,” said Wells, a mother of four who is director of education for the global health program at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. With her husband working as well, “I don’t know how we’re going to be on all the calls and get the work done when we have these responsibilities. It’s just really, really hard.”
When the coronavirus outbreak led schools to shut down in the spring, parents had to quickly rally, juggling their jobs with the added roles of teacher, tutor and occasional IT technician.
It was a stressful time, but one that many families presumed would be temporary, coming at the end of the school year. But as the virus surges throughout the U.S. and many school districts again shift much or all learning online, those remote routines are resuming with no clear end in sight.
Now, employers and employees are grappling with how to adapt to a new reality that may require them to extend short-term fixes and create more long-term solutions, whether that’s staggering schedules, splitting jobs between two workers or offering leaves of absence.
“I think employers had to very quickly allow a lot of things in the spring that they can’t sustain on an ongoing basis without a little more thought and a little more structure around it,” said Patty Pryor, a principal and litigation manager for the law firm Jackson Lewis who focuses on disability and leave management issues. “There has to be flexibility for all this to work out.’
The stakes are high. Without support, some overwhelmed parents, particularly mothers, who typically take on more of the caregiving burden, say they will likely drop out of the workforce – and many already have.
Mothers stop working
An analysis of federal census data by the Center for American Progress found that from April through July, roughly a third of unemployed millennial mothers were not working because of the closure of a school or child care facility – about three times the number of young fathers who were out of work for the same reasons.
But businesses still need their employees to perform to maintain the bottom line. Among companies, 66% say they are not planning or considering altering performance expectations or career development and promotion processes for workers dealing with child care issues, according to a survey by Willis Towers Watson.
And morale may plummet as employees without children feel pushed to pick up the slack for their colleagues who are parents.
‘’There’s a lot to balance and think through,” Pryor said. “Employers are really struggling because of that. It’s not just dollars and cents.”
Still, some are trying to step up to the challenge.
“In the spring, we hoped this would be a sprint, but it is becoming clearer this is looking like a triathlon,” said Joanna Daly, a human resources vice president for IBM, which has more than 350,000 employees globally, 90% of whom are now working from home.
“We really don’t want our employees to be burnt out, so part of this is to listen to what employees are needing and being prepared to respond in real-time.’’
IBM is now offering four additional weeks of flexible, paid emergency leave that can be used in increments or in a single, monthlong stretch.
“They can use (it) a couple hours at a time,” Daly said. The company will also start offering an emergency backup care benefit in early September, enabling employees to use a center or to get in-home assistance when normal child or elder care arrangements fall through.
And IBM employees who want to work from home can do so until the end of this year, even if their offices have reopened. Company management will weigh whether to continue allowing that option in 2021.
IBM is not alone in offering more malleable choices for employees.
RBC Capital Markets, the investment banking arm of the Royal Bank of Canada, is recording meetings so that staffers can tune in when the time is most convenient.
“It could be at 10 o’clock at night, or 6 in the morning,” said Liz Lieberman, the company’s head of human resources in the U.S.
Remote work, and job sharing, where a pair of employees trade off days performing the same role, were options before the pandemic, Lieberman said. But such arrangements may become more commonplace because of the ongoing challenges caused by the health crisis.
The company is also taking into account how some workers are juggling jobs with family responsibilities when evaluating their performance.
“There’s a lot of understanding around what people are able to do,” Lieberman said. “We have to prioritize…It’s quite a daunting experience to be doing two full-time jobs at the same time.”
Productivity will dip with remote learning
More than half of working parents say they will be distracted to a moderate or significant degree as they carry out job tasks while helping their children with remote learning, according to Perceptyx, an employee survey platform.
Meanwhile, the survey found 42% of working parents are also somewhat or greatly worried about their job security because they are having to grapple with their kids being at home.
Even sympathetic employers may face a dilemma since they need a steady workflow to stay financially afloat.
A PwC survey in June found that 44% of employers felt employees were more productive working at home during the pandemic, vs. 31% who believed they were less productive and 25% who felt work output was roughly the same.
“As much as employers really want to be helpful and recognize the issue parents are having,” Pryor said, “there is also the economic reality that they can’t afford to pay people who aren’t actually being productive and pulling their weight.’’
But being too inflexible can cost businesses current workers as well as future recruits.
“For organizations who are not providing the flexibility and support to work from home with children present, more than one-third of parents plan to quit within the next year,” said Brett Wells, director of people analytics at Perceptyx.
The Perceptyx survey also found that women in senior leadership roles were 1.5 times more likely to say they plan to quit within the next 12 months.
‘No more boundaries’
But for Traci Wells, quitting is not an option, financially or emotionally.
“I’ve loved being a working mom ,” she said. At the office, “I’m fully engaged and present, and when I come home … I’m the person who didn’t check emails in the evenings or weekends unless it was absolutely necessary.”
But since the spring, the office, the classroom and her family’s home have all merged “like there were no more boundaries,” Wells said. “We’re all at home in a small space trying to make things work.”
When it became too much, Wells said her manager went to bat for her, encouraging Wells to take the leave allowed under the federal medical leave act when she was unable to take off under a similar university program because she was deemed an essential worker.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was until I took the break,” Wells said of the pressure she’d felt juggling work with her added responsibilities at home.
Before her leave, Wells tried to create an office out of her bedroom, but “sometimes there was literally no place to go,” she said. “The baby would be napping in one room and the older kids are on calls, and my husband would be on an interview and I’d have a meeting (all) at the same time.”
While her husband has been helpful with household chores, he would sometimes forget to put their daughters on their scheduled calls. Wells was the one the girls came to with questions about their Spanish homework. And then there was her young son, whose preschool was also closed at the time.
“Part of what made it so incredibly difficult was having a three-and-a-half-year-old who didn’t understand that Mommy was on a call and would literally be crying behind a locked door saying ‘Let me in. I want a hug,’ ” she said. “He doesn’t understand you’re here … but you’re not really available.”
Remembering those struggles as she looks toward the fall is making her “anxious that it’s going to get to that again.”
After finding out that her children’s learning will take place online at least initially when school starts Aug. 20, Wells went on family leave in early July to ease some of her stress.
Wells is due back to work Aug. 24, though the leave could be extended until the end of September. Her employer continues to be supportive, but Wells said it’s been harder to ease the pressure on herself.
“The stress and anxiety I have is coming from myself and who I am and how I like to perform,’’ said Wells, who was the first person in her family to go to college and went on to earn her PhD. “The other thing that weighs on the back of my mind is, when they do have to have furloughs and make cuts, how are those decisions going to be made? And how are those going to impact working parents and working mothers in particular?”
‘I don’t get that break’
Harriet Thomas, a mother of five, said her children began school remotely Aug. 3.
A supervising child support specialist for Los Angeles County, her employer has been flexible, letting employees work remotely and shifting start times to when it’s more convenient for them.
Thomas’s days start with her logging on to her computer at 7 a.m. The four older children, who range in age from 4 to 8, get up an hour later. Then, with Zoom classes, lunch breaks, and supplemental lessons in subjects like cursive during the afternoon, the day doesn’t slow down until everyone goes to bed at 8 p.m.
Thomas also has a 1-year-old daughter that her husband tends to.
She appreciates not having to commute nearly two hours each day, and enjoys being able to supervise her children’s education. But Thomas said there’s a constant push and pull.
“I … have to decide which issue is more urgent, what I’m doing online with work or their immediate issue,” she said of her children. “I may have to stop what I’m doing to find whatever school supply they’re looking for … It’s rough sometimes, but I have to do it.’
She’ll also likely have to put her pursuit of a doctorate on hold since she no longer has the office lunch breaks or small window of time between leaving work and picking up the kids to study.
“I never have time for myself,” she said. “With them being at home, and me being at home, I don’t get that break.”
‘I don’t want to be the bottleneck’
Mary Richards, a mother of three in Monona, Wisconsin, said her children’s school year will also start out with virtual learning. That means she will be juggling her work as an accountant for the city of Madison with trying to keep her 5-year old daughter engaged with online lessons, while trying to get her 1-year-old to sleep twice a day.
When she puts the baby down for her naps, Richards often sits beside her, pecking quietly on her laptop.
“I might be working, but I also have one eye on her the whole time too,” she said. “So I’m definitely not as productive.”
Her employer has been understanding. Still, she doesn’t want to spark resentment among colleagues.
“I know how it feels to wait for somebody else to do their part,” Richards said. “I don’t want to be the bottleneck.”
Friction between employees who are parents and their peers who are not is a real concern.
Among workers without children, 39% believe their colleagues who are parents are more distracted, according to Perceptyx. A quarter say their workload has increased and become harder to tackle because of their peers who have children, and 29% say their colleagues who are parents are less productive.
Retention, recruitment on the line
But many employers believe workers need flexibility during a challenging time.
Among companies, 59% have offered flexible hours to support the caregiving responsibilities of their employees and another 29% are planning or considering that option, according to Willis Towers Watson. And 51% of businesses will enhance their flexible hours offering this year or in 2021, while 28% will boost their back up child care benefit.
With so many employees facing similar challenges, employers “have to think about retention issues, and they have to think about how they’re viewed in social media and otherwise for future recruitment efforts,” Pryor said.
Perceptyx found that 92% of employees who strongly believe their employers are providing the leeway and support needed to work from home while caring for children plan to stay at the company for at least the next 12 months.
Some employees may also want to consider switching to a part-time schedule, even if it means a pay cut, Pryor said. And working parents could hire high school or college students who are also learning remotely to supervise younger children who are at home.
“There are options in how to make it work,” Pryor said.
Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter@charissejones