Why Companies Have to Rethink How to Treat Working Parents in a Post-Pandemic Culture

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May 21, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

As millions of workers have transitioned into working from home over the past few months, state and local governments have, in turn, issued COVID-19 restriction mandates that require employers to adapt accordingly. But as we begin the transition out of pandemic-mode and ultimately move past it, employers must make broader cultural changes that address the complicated situations of working parents in order to protect company cultures and retain top talent. To successfully rebuild or continue building our companies, we have to make broader cultural changes that address our working parents’ complicated situations.

Being a working parent looks different after the pandemic

As employees re-enter the physical workplace, working parents will face new challenges such as lack of childcare, concerns about contracting COVID-19, and increasing mental health concerns. On a much larger scale, this experience has revealed the state of our collective consciousness as it relates to working and parenting – the two are still at odds.

Chloe Cooney writes in her article The Parents Are Not All Right: “Viruses, or in this case, global pandemics, expose and exacerbate the existing dynamics of a society — good and bad. They are like a fun-house mirror, grossly reflecting ourselves back to us. One of those dynamics is the burden we put on individual parents and families. We ask individuals to solve problems that are systemically created. This current situation is almost prophetically designed to showcase the farce of our societal approach to separating work and family lives.”

The truth is, as much as we have touted the benefits of balancing, and in some cases separating, our professional and personal lives, the two don’t exist in separate buckets. If either are to be their most successful, they have to co-exist. In the words of Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, in order for them to co-exist, “we need to normalize the experience of parenting while working.” In the midst of COVID-19, never before has the need to create a system that allows us to simultaneously parent while working and work while parenting been revealed so dramatically.

Jump on the bandwagon

Organizations and leaders of these organizations must get on board with a shifting cultural dynamic to find ways for parenting and working to co-exist.

Bringing our whole selves to work

Whether your organization is a small, six-person team or exceptionally large, culture starts at the top. If, as business owners and HR managers, we acknowledge that we are more than our work selves, it will encourage our employees to follow suit, allowing them to bring their whole selves to work – the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we open these lines of communication and share these vulnerabilities, employees are happier, culture improves, turnover decreases, and productivity increases.

Flexible work schedules and locations

Offering flexible work schedules and remote working options is not a new consideration for working parents, but productivity and results remain a worry to most employers.  But now, in a culture that has faced almost nationwide quarantine, business leaders know it can be done successfully. Moving forward, it will certainly be harder for employers to claim that working from home is not a reasonable accommodation for certain employees.

While the pros and cons of working from home are fresh on all of our minds, employers should plan to engage employees in a dialogue now about remote working, including what works, what doesn’t work, and what could work better for their organization. From there, develop a plan that will provide employees with greater flexibility in the future that acknowledges their whole selves, both working, and parenting.

Paid parental leave

Many organizations are required to provide paid leave to families through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), but outside of COVID-19 requirements, the majority of U.S. organizations still don’t offer paid leave for new parents. Offering paid leave for working mothers and fathers shows that you respect them and care about their families’ well-being. Recognizing the needs of employees and their families fosters the co-existence of working and parenting. It also improves engagement, culture, employee retention, and productivity.

According to a study for the March of Dimes Center for Social Science Research, U.S. states that have already implemented paid-leave policies found a 20 percent reduction in the number of female employees leaving their jobs in the first year after giving birth – and up to a 50 percent reduction after five years. For women without paid parental leave, nearly 30 percent dropped out of the workforce within a year after giving birth, and one in five did not return for over a decade.

Treating working parents unfairly is costly

While embracing the responsibilities of working parents from a cultural and organizational standpoint is crucial, it’s also a matter of legal responsibility.

While not officially a protected category under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the organization uses the term “caregiver discrimination” to illustrate circumstances in which stereotyping or other forms of disparate treatment may violate Title VII or the prohibition under the ADA against discrimination based on a worker’s association with an individual that has a disability or caregiver needs.

The EEOC has even issued guidance that caregiver discrimination might also constitute sex, disability, or age discrimination. In May 2019, the EEOC obtained a $5 million settlement from JP Morgan Chase due to their discriminatory parental leave policies by providing men less parental leave (caregiver leave) than it did women. Estee Lauder was fined $1.1 million in July 2018 under similar circumstances. These employers were held liable at great cost to their bottom lines and their companies’ cultures.

While there is no federal law expressly prohibiting caregiver discrimination, when you combine Title VII, ADA, the Equal Pay Act, and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), working parents have real protections, especially when faced with limited access to childcare over the coming months.

There is now even more protection in place for working parents via the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). This new COVID-19-specific regulation requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave related to the disease through December 31, 2020. At least one suit has already been filed under the FFCRA – a former Eastern Airlines executive recently accused the company of retaliation when she was fired just days after she asked for leave to care for her 11-year-old son. It won’t be the last.

The US Chamber of Commerce provides a succinct guide to FFCRA eligibility requirements here, and an extensive FAQ can be found here.

To ensure your company is protecting itself and its employees, take a minute to review your current policies and procedures with an eye on the following guidelines:

  • Provide an equal amount of caregiver/parental leave time for all parents
  • Clearly distinguish between pregnancy-related disability leave for birth mothers and general caregiver/parental leave available to all parents.
  • Avoid gender-based terms in leave policies like “primary” or “secondary” caregiver or “mothers” and “fathers.”
  • Promote a workplace culture that encourages parents of all sexes to provide care to their children during this pandemic and, if receiving discriminatory actions or harassment, encourage them to raise their voice and be heard.
  • Ensure your company has a system in place that allows for proper reporting and investigating of potential discrimination and harassment incidents. Ideally, a system that provides for timely resolutions and unbiased investigations.

Protecting your company and employees now

As noted in a recent Forbes article, there is no current law that adequately addresses protecting parents from discrimination when they are unable to work at all or as often due to the lack of access to childcare caused by the pandemic. However, that doesn’t mean companies should assume that they have zero obligation or mandate to consider the needs of this population.

How we adapt to the pandemic now and prepare for post-pandemic circumstances will undoubtedly impact our long-term cultural and overall organizational health. From witnessing first-hand my own family day-in and day-out during this quarantine, I’d say systemic cultural changes that redefine the relationship between working and parenting are long overdue.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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