Closing The Gap

39% of working parents fear they'll be fired if they take advantage of child-care benefits at work

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Amid layoffs and a recession spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, many working parents say they don't want to rock the boat with their employers right now — even if it means forgoing workplace benefits they're entitled to use. 

Nearly half, 42%, of parents say they're scared that taking advantage of child-care benefits that companies are providing right now, such as increased paid time off or flexible work hours, would risk their employment. In fact, 39% worry they could be let go if they did, according to a recent report from Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to promote workplace inclusivity.  The online survey polled 1,000 U.S. working parents of school-aged children in August. 

It's not surprising that so many parents are concerned, given the current environment with many companies experiencing layoffs, says Megan Sowa, director of strategic opportunities and alliances at ‎Willis Towers Watson, a global risk management, brokerage and advisory firm. But this type of employee sentiment likely varies from company to company, she adds. 

"I think largely it has to do with culture and how safe employees feel using the benefits that they have," Sowa says. It depends on the messages, intentional or unintentional, that employers send to their employees. Are managers supportive of workers using these benefits? What's the tone in which these options are being conveyed to employees? 

Women in particular may be more vulnerable to concerns about their job security, says Rachael McCann, senior director of health and benefits at Willis Towers Watson. "Women are often the primary caretakers," she says, so they may feel more pressure to keep working. Additionally, more women are employed in non-senior roles and may feel their job structure or responsibilities prohibit them from taking advantage of updated policies. 

It's a "very normal human reaction" to be nervous, says Kimberly Jones, people, experience and markets leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Jones has firsthand experience working with employees who are navigating new benefits aimed supporting working parents. Like many employers, PwC rolled out a suite of new benefits this year for parents that includes working reduced hours, engaging in flexible schedule arrangements, taking a sabbatical while retaining 20% of your pay and getting help with child care. 

"I did speak with so many of our parents who actually said that to me flat out: We're a little nervous about this," Jones says. "In an uncertain environment, you quite naturally are hesitant to be gone."

These benefit programs aren't just being implemented for "lip service," they're really meant to support employees, McCann says. While it's important for workers to talk through their plans with a manager and gauge how any absences or changes could affect their work, most employees should utilize their benefits without too much anxiety. 

"Ultimately, employers are investing time, communications, and, at times, funding, as well as rethinking how, when and where work is done. They are doing this to support employees and want them to make use of what is available, based on their personal needs," McCann says. "[Employees] should not be fearful."

Many companies are stepping up

Across the board, nearly all companies in a recent survey of over 500 employers by Willis Towers Watson say they're offering working parents the ability to work flexible hours. About 76% are also allowing employees to work fewer hours and about 10% of employers are maintaining pay and benefits. 

Additionally, about 30% are now offering access to back-up child-care services and another 30% are planning to, or considering, rolling out this benefit to their employees. Roughly 1 in 4 companies are also providing subsidized care at centers, as well as tutoring or other educational resources. 

"Companies are working hard to try to do the best they can within their capacities to help [parents] along, but companies need to make sure that they clearly communicate those benefits so that everyone is aware of and not afraid to take advantage of them," says Lorraine Hariton, president and CEO of Catalyst.

"Companies can go a long way to setting the right tone around that so that people do take advantage of this," Hariton says.

How employees can mitigate their fears

If you're scared to take advantage of any new child-care benefits or flexibility, talk to your supervisor or your human resources manager, Sowa recommends. Working parents may also want to tap into any employee resource groups or networks, formal and informal, that are available in their company to see how others are approaching any updated child-care benefits. 

In many cases, if your company allows you to work reduced hours, or even take a leave of absence, you can usually adjust your schedule if circumstances change, Jones says. Parents who are worried about juggling remote learning this fall may feel they need to step back from work to help their children in school. But if they find they aren't needed as much as they thought, they may be able to simply resume their normal work schedule. "It's not as though if you make a decision, that's the decision you have to stick with from here on out," Jones says.  

And if the benefits or programs put in place aren't working for you, you may want say that too. A good employer would want to hear the feedback and try to make it more accessible or improve a benefit so that it gets utilized, Sowa says. 

At the end of the day, this could be an opportunity to enact real change, Sowa says. This pandemic has challenged companies to create new support systems for employees so that not only could they continue to work, but also reduce stress and potential burnout. "This might just raise the standard of what makes a good employer," she says.

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Debate over tech companies giving parents more PTO during the crisis
Debate over tech companies giving parents more PTO during the crisis