Employers should be more flexible with employees who are juggling work and family responsibilities while their children learn from home.
Businesses need to be aware of the stress working parents face and be adaptable, especially with schools now closing temporarily due to COVID-19 outbreaks and grandparents generally unavailable for child care.
“Failing to accommodate working parents not only sends the wrong message to other employees, it puts your company at risk for legal action,” says CBIA's Mark Soycher.
“That’s why employers should be as flexible as possible and practice patience during these unprecedented times.”
That could include welcoming the occasional child to a video conference or understanding that a working parent may not be available for that conference, Soycher said.
Employers must understand their rights and employees’ rights under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, including expanded family and medical leave, he said.
The law requires employers with fewer than 500 workers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specific reasons related to COVID-19.
One such reason is when the employee is unable to work because they have to care for a child whose school or childcare program is unavailable due to COVID.
But it gets complicated applying the law when a worker’s children are expected to attend school only a few days a week or part of the day, Soycher said.
The FFCRA considers a school closed and the employee eligible for paid leave only if in-person attendance is not available, including if it moves to online instruction or any other method that requires a child to learn from home.
However, if the working parent chooses remote or online learning when in-person schooling is available, FFCRA does not apply.
Another requirement of FFCRA coverage is that an employee must certify that no other capable person can care for that child.
“Employers should guard against gender discrimination, and treat working mothers and working fathers the same,” Soycher said.
He cautions to not assume that a co-parent at home should be able to provide child care because that other parent may also be working and unable to watch the child.
But if a co-parent or usual care provider is available, in general, a worker doesn’t need to take leave.
Employers should have flexible working hours but also differentiate between work time and time off.
“Even though an employee may be home all weekend, employers must set boundaries and encourage them to take their time off,” Soycher said.
Employers and employees must keep in mind that when working, either in the workplace or at home, traditional work rules and state and federal employment laws apply.
This includes recordkeeping, safety, data security, and decorum, among others.
If it’s feasible for working parents to do assignments in the evening after the children are in bed, employers should discuss that and come to an understanding to avoid conflicts over why the employee isn’t working during normal business hours, but is working late into the night.
And although light manufacturing may not seem hazardous in a factory setting, it’s not suitable—or even legal—in a residential environment
If overtime is not warranted or affordable, that needs to be made clear.
Remote Work Policy
Employers should establish a remote work policy for all employees and assess workplace policies to ensure they treat workers equally.
For example, most employees would understand they could not bring their child to the office or factory and ask them to do some of the employee’s work, but it may need to be said explicitly that they may not “subcontract” their job to their child at home.
Soycher suggests not to forget that supervisors who have never managed remote workers may be as equally unfamiliar with that landscape as employees, and may need information, coaching, or training.
Similarly, everyone is struggling to keep up with many new laws providing for leave, pay, and unique options never before available.
Employers and employees need to be patient and flexible in coming to terms with these new rules, and not view it as an opportunity to take advantage of the unfamiliarity or uncertainty.
“And employers should never single out parents for behavior they might ignore from a childless employee,” Soycher said.
But employees may be treated as the individuals that they are.
The worker who needs constant supervision or who has difficulty multitasking in the office may not be suited to work independently at home while also trying to manage a child’s online lessons.
In that case, an employer must be comfortable declining remote work, and instead explain to the employee about available paid time off benefits if they must stay at home for childcare.
Soycher’s other suggestions include:
- Discussing with employees the suitability of a remote setup before they begin to work at home and checking in frequently during their remote work
- Having realistic expectations about quantity and quality of work amid COVID-19 pressures
- Asking your employees for suggestions about what’s working, what isn’t, and how it might be improved
- Inquiring about an employee’s frame of mind, stress levels, coping strategies and, if available, reminding them of counseling services such as employee assistance programs
- Making time to socialize, such as a Zoom staff coffee break to talk about things other than work
- Training employees to know each others’ duties in case of emergency
- Considering subsidizing child care—the IRS allows credits for employer-provided child care
- Creating a chat room or Slack channel for working parents to share challenges, solutions, and tips
“With any policy you set and any decision you make, employers must always be sensitive to the heightened need to constantly communicate when COVID-19 is clouding thinking and priorities,” Soycher said.
“And even if a manager has never been a parent, or one whose child left home long ago, they must understand that when the decision is between your job and your child, the child always comes first.
“That is not neglect of job responsibilities—it’s being a parent,” he said.
“With patience, cooperation, and commitment, we can do this together.”