In the early days of the pandemic, when schools suddenly shut down and millions of employees were sent to work from home, many parents looked forward to fall as the point when they believed life would return to normal.
But back-to-school this fall is anything but routine, with schools across the country either going partially or fully remote. What many thought was going to be a short-term problem could drag into 2021 and beyond. As a result, working parents are panicking as they struggle to figure out how to juggle remote learning and full-time jobs.
For many, the concern lies with their ability to keep everything running smoothly without neglecting their kids or their work responsibilities. Over half, 54%, of working parents say they feel guilty because they can't fully care for their children, while 43% report feeling guilty when they're caring for their families because they're not focusing on their work responsibilities, according to Catalyst's recent survey, "The Impact of Covid-19 on Working Parents." The online survey polled 1,000 U.S. working parents of school-aged children in August.
"I'm constantly failing at one thing or the other," says Elizabeth Wiggs, 36. "The trade-off is I'm either doing a bad job at work or a bad job of parenting.
"It's hard to maintain a sense of your personal value and self-worth when the two pillars of my identity — my career and being a parent — feel like they have just massive cracks running through their foundation. This is like an identity crisis."
In order to care for her daughter and do her job, Wiggs is like the 61% of mothers Catalyst surveyed who are putting in long hours outside of the traditional work day. A Seattle-based marketing manager for Zillow, Wiggs typically wakes up around 4:30 a.m. to start work before her 6-year-old daughter gets up for the day. "That usually gives me at least two hours. Fingers crossed, she sleeps late and then I get a little more time," Wiggs says.
But once her daughter is up, her day gets a bit more challenging, especially since her daughter's school is fully remote this fall. "I haven't used any child care," Wiggs says. "My job requires me to be in meetings a lot of the day and so [my daughter] is spending a lot of time in front of the TV. That's my child care."
Wiggs shares custody with her daughter's father. "That helps take the pressure off a little bit," she says, but adds her daughter is with her the majority of her work week. "The days that she's with her dad — just wow — all I do is work. But it's kind of nice to just have only one thing to focus on, so I go into crazy hyperfocus mode."
While Wiggs is managing to balance all her responsibilities without cutting back her hours, 48% of parents surveyed by Catalyst are planning to cut back on work this fall if their children do not go back to school full-time. And that includes those who are opting to reduce their work hours, go part-time and even quit their jobs, at least temporarily.
"I don't think this is going away anytime soon," says Laura Nickel, a 35-year-old single mother living in the Chicago suburbs. With that in mind, Nickel says she's been thinking through how to mentally and physically prepare herself and her 7-year-old daughter to do this for the long haul.
To make it work, Nickel has been starting her work day earlier, but she's also grouping all of her client calls in chunks throughout the day if she can. Generally, she tries to wrap up work in the early afternoon just as her daughter's school Zoom sessions end. "We're able to have lunch together each day and 'recess' bike rides or a trampoline jump," Nickel says, adding she wants to make the pandemic experience as positive as possible for her daughter.
An account director for a small PR firm focused on technology companies and start-ups, Nickel says that while her employer has been supportive, she's the only parent at her company with a school-aged child. And she says it's on her to think through what support she needs and ask for it. Recently, her company has considered reducing the billable hours goals for all employees for the year, a step Nickel supports.
"It's hard to balance working and having a kid," Wiggs says even though she feels she has a lot of support from her employer. At the start of the pandemic, Zillow offered parents the ability to work more flexible schedules, as well as providing 15 days of back-up care through Bright Horizons and 10 days of paid "caregiver time" that can be taken intermittently and on top of the normal paid time off and sick leave policies.
In fact, Zillow is one of several major employers that have rolled out increased child-care benefits through partners like Bright Horizon amid the pandemic. Last month, Citi announced it was increasing the number of discounted back-up child-care days from 20 to 40 for employees. Additionally, the financial company rolled out nanny placement services, as well as waived membership fees and offered discounts to Sittercity.
And for those parents who are juggling remote learning, Citi is offering services that can help parents find educators to help supervise online learning. And if employees are interested in small group learning at home, they can request help finding educators and connecting with other families.
"We wanted to be as flexible as possible to support our colleagues," says Sara Wechter, Citi's head of human resources. "There is so much uncertainty right now about how long this will last and we'll all be at home, so we decided not to offer a set number of additional paid days off."
"We understand the importance of quality child care and how hard remote learning is for working parents," Wechter tells CNBC Make It, adding it's something she's personally dealing with each and every day as a mother of 10-year-old twins. "Since we are all spending most of our time at home, the lines are blurred between work and personal time."
Given this situation, Wechter says employers have an opportunity to play a big role in helping employees navigate all the challenges they're facing, including managing family responsibilities, not just their workloads.
Companies like Accenture, Bank of America and Microsoft also are offering employees the option to send their children to "learning centers" operated by Bright Horizons, which offer small-group school-day supervision for school-age children, according to a spokesperson for the child-care company. Through partnerships with five leading education providers including Sylvan Learning and Code Ninjas, the program has more than 1,800 learning center locations nationwide that provide children ages 6 through 12 with proctors who can help them with their schoolwork.
IBM is also partnering with Bright Horizons to offer employees up to 25 days of subsidized back-up care per year for either center-based care or at-home child care, a spokesman tells CNBC Make It. Additionally, the company recently updated its paid time off policies to provide up to 4 weeks of flexible emergency leave for parents and caregivers. Employees can use this time any way they want, including in two-hour segments, half or full days, or four consecutive weeks.
When it comes to providing supervision and back-up care for younger children, Bright Horizons has approximately 725 of their centers currently open with plans to reopen more into the fall. The company typically operates nearly 1,100 child-care centers globally.
But these benefits are far from standard for most working parents who are juggling work and remote school this fall. The Catalyst survey found, overall 46% of parents say that either their employer has no plans in place to help with child care or they haven't been made aware of them.
And women are more likely to report a lack of support, with 49% of mothers surveyed saying they're not aware of their employer rolling out any child-care support compared to just 39% of men polled.
Simply giving everyone more time off is not enough, Nickel says. The work is still waiting for you when you sign back on. Instead, companies need to be asking employees what they can do to help. And it's going to look different for everyone, she says.
Even when you have a supportive employer, parents are still feeling the pressure. Wiggs, like many parents, worries about the potential long-term consequences to her career.
Parents say they can't really keep their family life and responsibilities separate from their work anymore, especially when kids interrupt video meetings or can be heard on the background of phone calls. "I've been in public relations, communications, marketing for 15 years, and I've spent six of that being a single mom. And I have kept that very, very quiet," Nickel says, worried that it would taint employers' perception of her ability to get the job done. But now, there's no hiding it, she says.
The focus on being a parent does worry Wiggs. "I'm at a point in my career where I'm trying to get to the next level and get myself ready for promotion" Wiggs says. "Even though everyone says it's OK, we don't expect much of you right now, this is unprecedented, I know that I still want to show up as well as I can because I still want my career to keep progressing."
Wiggs says it feels similar to maternity leave. No matter how generous the maternity leave policy is, there's this thought in the back of your mind where it's like, well, technically, this isn't supposed to slow down my career growth, she says. And yet, you see your male coworkers getting promotions while you're on leave, and you're probably not being considered because you're not there.
"I know that everyone is very, very aware that this is a crazy time and this shouldn't impact people's career progression," Wiggs says. "But I'm also aware that somebody who is not with kids is able to perform at a higher level than I am right now."
Don't miss more in this series:
- Some parents are considering quitting work this fall to care for their kids—here's how to prepare
- Lack of school and child care could mean losing 'a generation of working parents'
- Millennial moms nearly three times more likely than dads to forgo work because lack of child care or school
- Parents expect school expenses will be higher this year—here are 5 ways to keep costs lower
- My preschool closed and now I'm looking at schools with tuition over four times what I was paying