Millions of children around the country are starting school from the comfort of their homes, rather than in a classroom. And that reality has many parents considering drastic measures to ensure they can support their children at home this fall.
About 22% of parents are considering reducing their hours if their children need to stay home at least part of the time, according to a recent Debt.com poll. Another 9% say they will be forced to quit their jobs.
"The stress that parents are facing is really unimaginable and unprecedented," says Hilary Berger, a career counselor and founder of Work Like a Mother. That's particularly true of mothers, Berger adds. Already, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that millennial mothers (born between 1981 and 1996) were three times as likely as fathers to be unemployed in July because they were unable to access child care.
But some parents may not have a lot of options. For those who are contemplating stepping away from their jobs in order to take care of their children this fall, it helps to at least be prepared, experts tell CNBC Make It. Here are five ways to help make the process smoother and mitigate the impact on your career.
Dropping out of the workforce should really be a "last resort," says Emma Johnson, mother of two and author of "The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children."
"You're lucky enough to have a job — keep working," Johnson says. That's especially true for mothers, who typically forgo their careers more than men who are fathers. "Let this 'martyr mother' thing go because it will kill your family," she says.
Many times mothers make the decision to step back from the workforce because they're taught to believe that sacrificing is good for their kids. But that's not always the case, Johnson says. "Kids need a house. They need you not to be stressed out about paying the bills."
Don't be quick to declare that you have no options available. First, do some digging into what resources may be at your fingertips, Johnson says. "It's an opportunity to reconsider all of our assumptions about the decisions we think we have to make," she adds.
Take another look at what family and friends may be available to help out. If you're a single parent, maybe rethink visitations or how each parent splits their time. And explore what other parents in your area are doing — there may be opportunities to co-parent or share care or schooling responsibilities.
Also check with local organizations and programs to see what child care and learning opportunities they may be putting together this fall. Several school systems have recently announced they will provide child care for days where students are scheduled for remote learning.
If you've done the legwork, crunched the numbers and determined that taking a leave of absence or reducing your work hours is the right choice for you, the next step is to create a game plan.
The biggest mistake that employees make when taking time off work is that folks go to their bosses before educating themselves on all the benefits that may be available, says Amber Rosenberg, a career coach with 20 years of experience who focuses on coaching working mothers.
First, understand what laws and policies apply to you. In March, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which gives working parents who work for a company with less than 500 employees paid time off if they cannot secure child care. Parents who work for eligible employers for at least 30 days can get up to 10 weeks of time off at two-thirds of their normal pay.
About 35% of large employers with more than 10,000 employees are offering paid caregiver leave, according to a report from the Business Group on Health. If your employer isn't eligible and isn't offering any paid time off, you may consider taking time through the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid, but job-protected, leave.
Parents should look into any policies their company has as well, Rosenberg recommends. These can usually be found in a company's employee handbook. At some companies, taking a leave of absence may mean that you're still eligible for benefits, including health insurance, while you might not be as a part-time worker. If you're not sure exactly how the policies work, set up time to have a confidential conversation with your HR manager.
You may find that you have more options than you think. In many cases, you may be able to create a new job structure beyond the typical 9 to 5, Monday through Friday role. Explore potential job share options, reduced responsibilities or even a project-based or consulting arrangement, Berger says. It's about trying to create a hybrid model that balances your responsibilities at work and at home, she adds.
Prepare for the conversation with your manager in advance, Rosenberg says. Clearly explain why you need to take the leave and, if you are planning to take advantage of specific laws or company policies, note that you need time off because of a lack of child care.
Make sure you stress that the time off could be valuable to your company as well. "Write down specific examples of how the leave of absence will benefit your employer," she says. Some examples of this could be that your leave may temporarily save the company money on their payroll expenses or help reduce the cost of hiring your replacement. Or maybe by giving you a leave of absence, rather than letting you go, the company can more easily retain customer relationships in the long run.
Rosenberg says that parents should, if possible, be clear about how long their leave will last and when it will start. That said, employers should be understanding if it's a bit vague because the duration of leave may rely on a number of factors outside parents' control or ability to plan, Rosenberg adds.
Parents who are approaching their employers for a leave should also put together a one-page outline that includes, at minimum, the following:
Having a thorough plan shows "you're really serious about returning and that you want to set the team up for success and that you've really thought this through," Rosenberg says.
When having the conversation with your supervisor, it's important to communicate not only that you will be back, but that you will be current and ready to pick up where you left off, Berger says. It may even make sense to propose or talk through a month-by-month plan of contact.
"If you're willing to set aside a designated time of the week or the day where you can respond to emails or calls, that's up to you," Rosenberg says. "The key is being really clear in how you communicate that up front and make it work for your family and staying firm in those boundaries when you're gone."
For parents who do end up stepping away from work this fall, it's important to check in on your mental health throughout the process, Berger says. "The psychological impacts of loss of identity for a mom who has been working outside the home can be dramatic," she says.
"Your roles as a professional and as a mother are needed and not disposable parts of your identity," Berger adds. Being a dedicated mother and educator does not give you permission to "hang up your own vitality and sense of purpose outside of motherhood."
Instead, Berger urges parents to be mindful about the ways in which they can stay relevant, feel like their best selves and be productive even while they are at home with their children. Maybe that's taking time to actively stay involved with your network or perhaps it's learning a new skill.
"Stay sharp," Berger says. "Any break in employment, regardless of circumstances, leaves you vulnerable and can have a long-term impact on your employment potential."
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