Many working families need child care again. But some aren’t eager to return to the pre-pandemic status quo—late nights at the office, long commutes, less family time. That has workers and their employers re-evaluating what work and child care will look like in a post-COVID world.
By Erin Duffy
The on-site child care center at First National Bank of Omaha was a godsend for Sarah Labedz and her family.
Her three daughters all attended. For Labedz, now a bank vice president, the benefits were clear: A convenient setting that allowed her to keep her kids close while they were nurtured in a high-quality early childhood program.
“It’s an amazing facility,” she said. “It was life-changing for me, and huge in terms of a benefit the bank offered.”
It’s a benefit accessible to only a lucky few—on-site or employer-sponsored child care is rare, due to cost, space, and other logistics. In a 2019 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, only 8% of survey respondents said their business or organization offered any on-site child care.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored the importance of and need for reliable, affordable child care, so children can learn and grow while parents work and businesses hum along.
With vaccination rates continuing to tick up across the country, many workers are now returning to the office after months of working from home. Others are re-entering the workforce after bouts of unemployment and a grueling year that saw parents—mothers, especially—leaving their jobs in droves to help with remote schooling or care for younger children when child care providers closed or shrank enrollment.
Many of these working families will need child care again. But some aren’t eager to return to the pre-pandemic status quo—late nights at the office, long commutes, less family time. That has workers and their employers re-evaluating what work and child care will look like in a post-COVID world.
Will flexible schedules, remote work, and other family-friendly policies forged out of need and desperation during the pandemic last?
“I very much lived the struggle of trying to manage working full-time and doing virtual school and hybrid school,” said Jo Giles, the executive director of the Women’s Fund of Omaha and mother of a 10-year-old.
Giles said the upheaval of the pandemic has set back the job prospects of many women and working mothers who had to cut their hours or quit their jobs to care for children or older relatives.
“This has hurt the careers of women and it’s hurt the economic stability of families who have depended upon two-parent incomes,” she said. “It also impacted the workplace. A lot of our workplaces need qualified workers.”
In May, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen laid out the stark numbers: between February and April 2020, 4.2 million women left the workforce. Almost 2 million of those women remained out of work.
The pandemic has spotlighted cracks in the child care system and exposed the difficulties of balancing work and family life, said Chad Mares, senior director of talent and workforce development at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Kids popped up frequently in the background of Zoom meetings or conference calls in the early days of the pandemic, when many schools and child care programs sent kids home.
“We’ve all had a front-row seat to that … and the strain that places on employees and kids, too,” Mares said. He’s speaking from personal experience: he and his wife have two kids under 5 and spent much of the last year working from home while juggling child care.
Employers are warming to the concept of the “whole employee,” the idea that workers aren’t robots who can check their family lives at the door, he said.
Mares leads a program at the chamber called Greater Omaha WorkLab (GrOW). It connects employees who might be struggling at work due to outside factors—child care, mental health, legal, or financial issues—with one-on-one support from “navigators” who often have a background in social work.
Employers are also realizing how closely entwined child care is with productivity and performance, he said. In one survey that the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska worked on, more than 51% of the 1,050 Nebraska parents who responded said they missed work due to child care issues during the pandemic. Nearly half said they had to reduce their work hours. (Learn more about that survey here.)
Mares thinks a lot about the inherent paradox of the child care industry. Care is expensive for families, but profit margins are low and early childhood workers make a median wage of just $12.24 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federal government is providing COVID relief funds for child care, but could employers offer child care subsidies or scholarships? Could they connect parents with providers?
“From an employer standpoint, it’s a way to attract and retain talent,” Mares said.
Spreetail is an e-commerce company that employs more than 800 people across Omaha, Lincoln, and Austin, Texas. Most workers on the software side went remote. Due to COVID-19 and space constraints as the company expands, workers won’t return to the office full time until June 2022, said Chad Kilpatrick, Spreetail’s director of talent acquisition and brand.
Pre-pandemic, the work culture was office-based and collaborative, he said. But safety concerns and parents’ need for flexibility after schools shifted to online learning factored heavily into the decision to go remote. They discovered workers were plenty productive at home.
“We recognize times have changed and we need to kind of adapt to that and be flexible,” he said.
Even when office workers return, they’ll have the option to work from home on Fridays and Mondays. The company already offers generous paid time off and 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.
Family-friendly policies shouldn’t be perks available only to white-collar workers, Giles pointed out.
During a Nebraska Legislature hearing on the impact of COVID-19 on child care, Diane Temme Stinton, the CEO of Lincoln manufacturing company TMCO, said the company began connecting employees with local early childhood programs and offering subsidies to defray costs in 2019.
“We are proactive because employees need our help,” she testified.
Learn more about the problems facing providers scrambling to meet the growing demand for child care.
Even the employer-subsidized First National child care center hasn’t emerged unscathed from the pandemic. Before, the program served 50 to 100 families, with capacity for 200 kids, but enrollment halved as office workers headed home last year. Many will return this summer, “but we fully recognize that things won’t ‘go back to the way they used to be,’” Labedz said.
The bank and the Lauritzen family that helms it remain committed to offering child care, she said.
First National has been surveying its employees and may need to dig deeper to determine what child care options parents prefer now, Labedz said. Some may only need part-time care if they plan to work from home twice a week.
“We’re hearing nationally, locally, everywhere, that child care is an issue, but I want to know more about what is the issue,” Labedz said. “Is it access to care? Affordability? Is it desire? It’s a natural thing for parents to like being with their kids at home.”
Giles hopes the pandemic will spur much-needed conversations about how to better support workers. The Women’s Fund already offered its employees 12 weeks of paid family leave, unlimited PTO, and shorter summer schedules.
“I’m hopeful that employees will feel courageous enough to have conversations with employers to ask for the things that will continue to support their loyalty and productivity in the workplace,” she said. “And I hope employers are smart enough to realize if you invest in what’s best for employees, you’re also investing in what’s best for the overall business.”
Erin Duffy, the digital communications specialist at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. As a journalist, she spent more than five years covering education stories for daily newspapers.
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org.