CEO on paid parental leave for school closures

The pandemic has brought to light an extremely important issue for our country: paid leave (PTO). Who gets it, who doesn’t, how much is enough and under what circumstances. And it’s clear that we have a lot of work to do to strengthen our support systems.

Let me first acknowledge that over the past 21 months some progress has been made on this front. According to data from McKinsey & Co. and Mercer, in March 2020, millions of workers had no paid sick leave or lacked enough paid sick leave to cover critical illness. Many large employers, in response, have extended their paid sick days and furloughs to meet the demands of the pandemic. But it was not enough. Kathryn Dill perfectly summed up the still clear dividing line between haves and have-nots for the the wall street journal:

While many workers who already had paid time off are now getting ever-greater benefits, many other low-wage, part-time and hourly workers, and those employed by small businesses, are still missing out on time off. paid and sick leave, which widens the disparities between these workers.

These disparities are immense and sufficiently complex in themselves. But I’m here to talk about another growing gap in the paid vacation conundrum. It is an issue that is not being addressed as quickly or as meaningfully as it should be given the physical, mental and emotional health of our workforce. It is the pressing need for additional paid leave for parents amid school closures and the return to virtual classrooms. We are way overdue for parents to get paid time off for child care interruptions.

At the start of the pandemic, my company InHerSight surveyed over 1,300 working mothers and discovered, unsurprisingly, that they were less productive, less satisfied, and working harder than ever. If you think that has changed amid record numbers of cases, thousands of school closures, relief childcare options and no approved vaccinations for children under 5, you would be right. The situation has probably gotten worse – and with lackluster or unchanged benefits that can’t stand the growing chaos at home.

In fact, this week we asked 80 working mothers with children under 18 if they felt they had enough paid time off to support their children during COVID-related childcare disruptions, and 64% said answered no. We also asked them if their employer’s support for them as a working parent had changed at all as a result of the omicron variant, in particular. The results don’t reflect the kind of foresight needed, given the severe impact this wave is having on families:

  • 18% of respondents say employer support has improved
  • 46% of respondents say employer support has stayed the same
  • 33% of respondents say employer support has deteriorated

I’m the founder and CEO of a company doing important work to accelerate progress toward global gender equality in the workplace, but I’m also a parent trying to manage my family during this crisis. Just keeping up with the influx of school communications, changing guidelines, and various COVID calendars has become a full-time job.

If employers do not act, and act quickly, they will see another major outpouring of talent from our economy, as parents are forced to make the heartbreaking decision to put their children or their livelihoods first. Here’s what employers need to know:

Parents need a PTO for school closures and childcare disruptions

To be clear, everyone should have enough paid time off, but parents are at breaking point. Adam Grant wrote last April about languishing, a term used to describe the sense of joyless, aimless stagnation that many felt as the pandemic dragged on. He explained how the acute state of angst felt by many in the scariest early days of the pandemic had given way to a chronic state of longing. But the truth is that many of us, especially parents of children who have health problems or don’t have access to a vaccine, have never left the angst. Our brains have been on high alert to fight or flight for almost two years now. It’s taking its toll and manifesting itself in statistics and buzzwords like “millions of women dropping out of the workforce” and the big quit.

Without paid leave for school closures, we also step into Maslow’s most fundamental and critical foundation: physiological needs. If parents can’t work, they can’t get paid, and they can’t have food and shelter and the essentials needed to survive and support their families.

Kudos to employers who have expanded their leave policies, but we need to do more, especially for low-wage, part-time and hourly workers, and those employed by small businesses who are often not covered. And for the companies that always come to us asking how to compete for the best talent, a word of advice: if there ever was a time for unlimited PTO, surely it’s now.

Develop the PTO and be more creative in supporting parents during this phase

Can you give a mask allowance to parents, so they can buy KN95 masks for their children at school? As CEO, I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on masks over the past 12 months. Subsidized childcare. Flexible working hours supported. All of these things can complement expanded paid leave, but they cannot replace it.

Train and practice empathy and listening

There is no one-size-fits-all solution here. There is so much complexity in each of our individual circumstances, empathy and creative problem solving are some of the most important tools we can use to support parents in the trenches.

And parents, if all else fails, here’s a great auto-reply to put on your emails for now and for the foreseeable future: “Due to COVID-related issues affecting my childcare coverage, my response will be delayed. Thank you for your patience.”

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