Parenting in a pandemic: The one benefit employers will focus on even more

This story is part of “Parenting in a Pandemic,” WTOP’s continuing coverage of how parents are dealing with childcare, schooling and more through the coronavirus pandemic.

This month, we spent a lot of time looking at the different headaches and challenges working parents have had to navigate since the coronavirus shutdown. Deciding how to approach school this fall is one issue, and child care — if you can find it — has its own issues and concerns despite being crucial to the whole “working” part of being a working parent.

The business community, generally our bosses, have fully realized this in recent months, though it was also getting more consideration even before everyone’s life turned upside down.

“We started to really see an attention being given to this issue before COVID,” said Cheryl Oldham, the vice president for education policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Now … it is front and center.”

More from the series

Parenting in a pandemic: Working moms are working less

Parenting in a pandemic: Anxieties working parents face with back-to-school decisions

Parenting in a pandemic: The search for child care

Oldham recalled having a conversation with the heads of state chambers focused just on the issue of child care, “And they said, ‘Yes, this is a top-tier issue for us, so much so that we want to do a coalition sign-on letter to Congress saying you’ve gotta do something,'” she said.

The letter, made public last month, encouraged Congress to provide more funding to licensed child care providers.

There’s an estimated 34 million American families raising children under the age of 18, and in more than 60% of those families, both parents work. However, since the pandemic began, a significant number of families saw one parent either stop working or cut back work hours because child care was too difficult to attain.

Even those parents who are still working are juggling the craziness happening around them, sometimes working different hours amid growing stress about their productivity and the assault the pandemic is wreaking on life around them.

Businesses have realized what’s at stake. Citing talks she had with people involved in commercial real estate and the economic development industry, Oldham said they flat out told her, “‘If we’re going to build an office park here, we have to design and include child care in that as well because that’s how we’re going to get the best businesses in.'”

“We need to be thinking about child care in this entire scenario. I think that was newer pre-COVID, and I think it will just be more and more important going forward,” she said.

There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy, and Oldham said different companies need to survey employees to find out what their needs are so they can come up with something beneficial to workers.

In some cases, companies are able to provide child care for workers, though many are in the health care industry and must offer that help so workers can treat people during off-peak hours, Oldham said.

“But there’s so many other things that can be done,” she said, from “benefits and subsidies, and flexibility, and backup child care.”

And, employers are realizing that offering such factors could lead to someone taking a job with their company, or keeping the job that they already have.

“There’s a lot of options for employers, and I think we are seeing more and more, their interest in understanding what those are, because they see it as a bottom line issue for their ability to operate and grow and be competitive,” said Oldham.

“If you want the best — and particularly, if you want the best diverse work force — you want more women, you want more minorities,” she said. “That will be a big recruitment and retention strategy. What are you doing to support those working parents in your business?”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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