After months of quarantine, parents across America are itching to get out of the house and back to work. But the reality is that they’re probably going to have a harder time clocking in than they expect. Once they do, they may not be able to stay on the job for long.
COVID-19 defies predictions. But recent models warn that intermittent periods of social distancing might be necessary for several years. It’s uncertain what that will look like. Maybe only older adults at greater risk of the virus will be quarantined. But schools tend towards over-caution, as every parent who’s seen one close over less than an inch of snow knows all too well.
Meanwhile, less cautious non-essential businesses are likely to reopen before schools, childcare centers, summer camps, and countless other places important to family frameworks. That means parents can’t work as they normally would if no one’s watching their kids. As such, working moms and dads could face long-lasting and unpredictable childcare shortfalls. Once parents burn through their sick days to take care of their kids — if they’re lucky enough to have them available — employers trying to recover for opportunities lost during quarantine are apt to run out of patience.
Working parents as a whole may be facing professional disaster. Parents of older children could face severe career disruption during their peak earning years; those with younger children might not be able to show up to work regularly enough to establish a career at all. Cultural shifts, newly enacted laws, and policy proposals may point to a solution. But only if actions are taken.
In previous economic emergencies, employers rolled back benefits and replaced experienced, expensive employees. During the Great Recession, worker rights eroded and parents were hit especially hard. To cut benefits and administrative costs, companies ditched full-time staff for contract and temporary workers. In fact, a quarter of the private sector jobs created in 2010 were temporary positions.
As the percentage of temporary workers rose, workplace benefits declined and American families transformed as parents, particularly fathers, lost jobs. The employment rate of married fathers with working wives dropped from 92 percent in 2005 to 88 percent in 2011 while the percentage of child care-providing fathers rose from 27 to 31 percent during that same time period. A company doesn’t need to offer temps sick or parental leave when they can just replace them with another temp or outsource the job altogether.
But there are critical differences between the 2008 crash and today that might amount to a sliver of a silver lining.
Ann Arbor employment and civil rights attorney and National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA) leader David Blanchard says that after watching working conditions erode over the last decade, American workers are bracing for a fight against further reductions.
“We’re in very uncertain times, so I think it could go in many directions, but I am definitely seeing more awareness of where those erosions occurred over the last decade,” Blanchard says.
Changes to collective anxiety and culture might benefit working parents. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans viewed sick days with suspicion. A 2017 survey found that 60 percent of American workers took less than five sick days off per year while one in five workers 45 or younger didn’t take any sick days at all.
“In this country if you’re not really sick, you go to work,” Edgar Ndjatou, executive director for the Washington D.C. employee-rights advocacy nonprofit organization Workplace Fairness, says.
The current coronavirus pandemic will certainly change whatever tough-it-out notions some stubbornly held onto.
What’s more is that the remote work of lockdown could redefine the workplace with employers reconsidering their expectations of workers’ time and understanding of family obligations. That could help parents markedly.
“Increasingly, employers are seeing that productivity isn’t very different if people work from home or go to the office,” Ndjatou says. “And I think some employers will actually make this a more permanent policy in terms of more liberal telework policies or being able to stay at home to take care of their children.”
Ndjatou added that companies who adapt and reconsider expectations of employee time will be better prepared for future pandemic-level catastrophic events. But while offering flexible hours may make strategic sense for businesses, there’s no law compelling them to do so. At least not a permanent one.
“America has no federal paid sick leave or parental leave,” Matt Bruenig, founder and president of left-leaning D.C. think tank People’s Policy Project (3P), points out. “Some states have limited programs. This differs from most developed countries that provide this kind of leave to their residents.”
A 2018 report compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of 41 countries ranked the United States dead last for parental leave policies. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 grants employees the right to take unpaid leave for family and medical reasons. But that’s unpaid leave. With many dual-income families unable to go too long without a weekly paycheck, the FMLA isn’t much help. Connecticut became the first state to offer paid sick leave in 2011. Today, 12 states and Washington D.C. have paid sick leave laws on the books while only five states — New York State, California, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Washington — mandate that employers offer forms of paid parental leave laws. Yes, certain companies offer very generous policies. But they’re the exception, not the rule.
Last year, 3P released the Family Fun Pack, a bundle of policy recommendations aimed at helping American families and reducing child poverty. In addition to free childcare, Pre-K and school lunches, the Family Fun Pack proposed 36 weeks of paid family leave per child (it defaults at 18 weeks per parent but families have leeway to divide the time as needed) and a $300 monthly allowance for each child. The Family Fun Pack was written before COVID-19. With the pandemic making Pre-K and school lunches inaccessible, Bruenig says the ideal replacement would probably be a form of paid leave for parents who need to miss work while caring for children and increasing the child allowance to compensate.
In March, the federal government passed a law granting two weeks of paid leave to those suffering from or caring for a family member with COVID-19. Unfortunately, the law disqualifies an estimated 68 to 106 million Americans from coverage, which according to the advocacy group Paid Leave For All notes, includes essential workers such as grocery workers, delivery drivers, and health care personnel. Moreover, the COVID-19 paid leave law wasn’t built to last: it’s set to expire on Dec. 31, 2020. Nonetheless, it’s significant for being the first nationwide paid leave law.
“It’s a limited benefit for employers with less than 500 employees and for caregivers with children or home,” Blanchard says. “But that was the first time the Family Medical Leave Act has provided for a paid leave.”
While Bruenig believes American families urgently need far more expansive paid leave, he’s not holding out much hope for their passage in the current national political climate.
“In the near term, it is hard to see much development on this front as it requires political leadership that is willing to significantly increase public expenditures,” he says. “But neither Trump nor Biden have shown a willingness to do that.”