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Closing The Gap

Fewer than 1 in 5 employers offer child-care help, but experts say coronavirus may make it an imperative

With schools and child-care centers closed across the country, 60% of U.S. parents say they've had no outside child care during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new survey from Boston Consulting Group. Instead, millions have spent the duration attempting to work from home while also caring for kids, with varying levels of success. 

For Gayatri Agnew, one of the biggest hiccups in her family's routine came about two weeks ago. A senior director at a Fortune 100 company, Agnew had been preparing to do a presentation during a virtual meeting with other company leaders from the family's home in Bentonville, Arkansas. During the hour-long meeting, the mom of two had a five-minute speaking role. It should have been no big deal.

Yet with a preternatural knack for timing, Agnew's five-year-old son burst onto the scene during those crucial five minutes, screaming madly 'Moooommmmmyyyy.' 

Embarrassing? Yep. Cute? Sure. Par for the course when you're parenting and working during the pandemic? Absolutely. With schools closed and child-care hard to come by, this is the new reality for millions of parents. And it's a delicate balancing act that 57% of parents say is too much to handle, according to a recent TD Ameritrade survey of over 1,000 U.S. adults. 

"Parents are making it work because they have no other choice, but it's causing mental stress and lack of sleep," says Matt Krentz, BCG managing director and partner. "Taking on the additional roles of teacher, babysitter and housekeeper on top of their regular jobs isn't sustainable for parents – they're spending nearly the equivalent of an extra full time job."

Child care isn't a new problem, but it's one that could get worse

The struggle for parents to balance careers and caregiving was a huge issue even before the pandemic. "We were in a child-care crisis pre-Covid," says Tim Allen, CEO of Care.com, a platform that helps families find and manage care providers. Parents struggled to find quality, affordable child-care providers and operators that offered flexible schedules. 

Even for the best employees, trying to juggle child care and work can result in a lag in productivity on the job. During a typical year, employers lose about $13 billion in potential earnings, productivity and revenue due to inadequate child-care resources, according to a 2019 report from the Council for a Strong America.

Yet employers weren't doing much to help before the pandemic. Only 4% offer a subsidized child-care center or program for their employees, according to the Society for Human Resource Management's Employee Benefits 2019 survey. Another 4% of organizations offer non-subsidized care in the form of company-affiliated, on-site child care, SHRM found, and roughly 11% offer employees access to a referral service, such as Care.com, which provides employees with the names of child-care providers.

Parents like Gayatri Agnew have been attempting to keep their children busy during the coronavirus pandemic. Here, her young son and daughter attend "home school."

Amid the pandemic, however, even those with access to these child-care benefits couldn't use them. About half of child-care providers nationwide opted to close temporarily when the pandemic hit their businesses, according to a recent survey of 5,000 providers nationwide conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Another 17% closed to all but the children of essential workers, leaving many parents with no choice but to figure out a way to care for their kids and do their jobs without any back-up support. 

Even as states reopen and life begins to return to a new normal, it could be harder than ever to find quality care. Many day cares, preschools and schools are at risk of closing their doors forever, which could lead to loss of nearly 4.5 million child-care slots, according to the Center for American Progress. That means nearly half of the U.S. child-care capacity is at risk of disappearing.

When it comes down to it, experts say employers are actually well-positioned to step in to help parents tackle child-care challenges. And it may be in their best interest to do so. "In the U.S., we're increasingly coming to terms with the fact that this [pandemic] is a marathon and not a sprint," Krentz says. "Even when schools come back, they may not be open every day for every child," he says, adding that this may lead to top employers providing additional child-care benefits to their employees. 

Some companies are already taking the initiative to do more 

For parents like Agnew and her husband, having the space (and quiet) to work proved to be essential, and they made the hard decision to continue to send their children to day care, which only closed briefly for a two-week period during the beginning pandemic.

"It's all trade off and compromise," Agnew says. Although she's been able to take advantage of an outside child-care arrangement, some parents aren't as fortunate. Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March to guarantee two weeks of paid sick leave at two-thirds an employee's regular pay to employees who can't work because of a lack of child care.  It only applies to workers at private companies with fewer than 500 employees, and certain public sector employers, which is only about 27% of the U.S. workforce, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Some big tech companies are also extending their leave policies to help parents impacted by school and day-care closures during the pandemic.

Google, for example, extended their paid family caregiver leave policy by eight weeks. The extension means that full-time Google employees are now eligible to take up to 14 weeks of paid time off as full or half days, a company spokesperson tells CNBC Make It. Other technology companies adopted similar leave policies, with Microsoft granting up to 12 weeks and Facebook announcing employees could get an additional four weeks of leave if they're struggling to find care. 

And while most employees don't have access to such generous paid leave policy, 82% of workers say their employer is doing something to help them manage, including allowing more flexible work schedules and deadlines, according to BCG's survey. 

"The onus cannot squarely fall on parents to figure this out — and it has been this entire time," says Priya Amin, co-founder and CEO of Pittsburgh-based startup Flexable, which helps connect companies and parents with child-care providers. 

Before the pandemic, Flexable worked with organizations like Google, Duolingo and the City of Pittsburgh, coordinating to provide backup emergency child care, as well as manage on-site care at conferences and events. But with many conferences and events canceled, Flexable is now focusing on virtual care solutions. 

Three weeks ago, Flexable rolled out Virtual MiniCamp, which provides 30 minute to 1-hour interactive video chats for children ages 3 to 10. So far, Amin says Flexable has started working with three organizations and is currently in negotiations with several large national companies looking to offer this benefit to their employees. 

Employees are going to see more companies offering flexibility and creative solutions as a way to support workers and maximize productivity, Amin says. 

Other businesses are looking to provide parents with care options at home. Over 2 million workers can currently book sitters and nannies through their employer via Care@Work, which is the employee benefits division of Care.com. CEO Tim Allen tells CNBC Make It that the company has had a lot of interest from employers in recent weeks, adding over 200,000 employees to the platform since the effects of Covid-19 started to prompt state and local shutdowns.

"You're starting to see there's a real landscape shift," Allen says, adding he believes employers are asking themselves: How do we make employees more productive if they need to work from home long-term?

Still other employers are pushing for changes on a federal level. On Wednesday, 30 current and former CEOs and top executives — including RE/MAX CEO Adam Contos and Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox who now sits on the boards of Johnson & Johnson and Target — sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and other lawmakers urging Congress to support economic relief for the entire child-care sector. "Sustaining child care is vital to the development of our nation's youngest generation and in helping re-start our nation's economy," the letter reads. 

The new must-have benefit?

Not only are more employers considering offering child-care options, the type of care that employers and workers want is shifting. On-site child care, for example, where an employer provides a day care at the office for employee use was the gold standard before the pandemic hit. "It's not anymore," Allen says. 

Instead, there's much more interest in providing access to in-home care, where a babysitter or nanny comes to watch a child while the parents work, Allen says. Parents are concerned about the safety of sending their child to day care during a pandemic. While in-home care doesn't bring the risk down to zero, it does potentially limit the number of people your family comes in contact with, he says. 

Employers may also be shying away from offering on-site group child care because they might be concerned about the liability, says Amber Clayton, SHRM's knowledge center director.

As employers start to get used to work-from-home situations, Allen says employers are going to start to ask themselves: How do we differentiate our organization to become the preeminent employer in this kind of environment? 

Implementing child-care assistance and family leave policies could certainly help companies with recruiting, Clayton says. "Any benefits that an employer offers outside of your traditional health, dental and vision is a good recruiting tool, especially when it comes to child care, because so many people need child care," she says.

Yet employers may look to implement policies that are more broadly applicable to more of their workers, such as extended leave. Whether more companies start to offer benefits such as subsidized care, on-site day cares or referral services also depends on whether people are able to find child care so that they can go back to work and be 100% at work, Clayton adds. 

And given the economic challenges many companies are facing, offering child-care benefits is not going to be possible for all employers, Krentz says. Instead, companies may continue to promote flexible, remote work as part of their workplace strategy.

For parents like Agnew, creating more child-care solutions in the workplace couldn't be more welcome. "There are multiple ways to solve the problem, but it's a problem," Agnew says. "What's not possible is just to say families everywhere work as hard as you were working before and do it while your kids are physically at home with you. That is impossible."

Don't miss more in this series: 

Kids can't be an 'afterthought': Some states are reopening without lifting child-care restrictions

Many child-care facilities aren't accepting kids, but for some parents, the bills keep coming

Democrats earmark $7 billion for child care in newest relief package—but it won't be enough to stabilize the system for long

Affordable child care is increasingly difficult to find in the U.S.—coronavirus could make it harder

U.S. parents lost $35 billion by staying home with their kids—the coronavirus pandemic could make it worse

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Why child care is so expensive in America
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