Reopening Schools Presents Mammoth Challenges for Workplace Equity

To Be Successful, We Must Involve Employers in the Conversation

Schools across Illinois and the country have begun reopening. With that has come a tangled web of considerations for parents, schools, and employers that highlights how interdependent our systems of work, childcare, and education are. It also reveals how precarious the balance is, particularly when it comes to considering the health, safety, and well-being of women in low-paying jobs and their families, disproportionately people of color and immigrants. The situation is particularly fraught for single parents, low-income families, and those without flexible jobs, whose ability to work is so often contingent on their children attending in-person school. As we continue to engage in these conversations, we cannot leave out the important role employers have to play in ensuring parents are supported as they navigate these now-dueling priorities.

The challenges are mammoth, and there are policies we can enact at the local, state, and federal levels to ease the burden on everyone.

Navigating all of this uncertainty and risk are parents, with 27% of working parents of young children saying they will have to leave the workforce because of the pressures of parenting under COVID; mothers are overwhelmingly bearing that burden. Parents are concerned about everything from exposure to the virus for their children and their families to the impact on their children’s emotional and social well-being. Many are skeptical about the safety of in-person learning but recognize that remote and hybrid models pose unique challenges as well. Parents are making these decisions with very little information on the academic effectiveness of any of these models in the current pandemic context.

Even beyond health and safety are logistical issues around multiple school schedules, availability of child care, and trying to accomplish work as employers are phasing out the early flexibility they provided. Some parents are juggling school schedules and jobs that can’t be done virtually, or are jobless and are dealing with the expiration of Pandemic Unemployment Compensation — risking eviction, hunger, and further debt. With so many people still without access to paid sick leave or paid family and medical leave, parents are faced with impossible choices between their children and their jobs at a time when they couldn’t be more vulnerable. Even those benefits provided via federal legislation have gaps, and the confusion for many who are eligible is so significant, Women Employed is embarking on a Know Your Rights campaign to help working people understand what paid leave benefits are available and how to access them.

But in all the discussion of whether or not schools should reopen and how, there has been a key player that has often been left out of the conversation: employers. Before the pandemic, for only the second time in history, women outnumbered men on U.S. payrolls. In the wake of the coronavirus, over half of job losses have been borne by women. Nearly 11 million jobs held by women disappeared from February to May, erasing a decade of job gains by women in the labor force. And the news brings a stark reality to the headlines every day: if there is no intervention, there will be a significant reversal of decades of gains women have made in the workforce. With the concerns about child care — whether of young children, or of school-age children remote learning — many parents are worried that they may have to choose between their jobs and their families. Women and people of color are already losing workforce gains due to this pandemic, and if employers don’t provide support for parents with school-age children, it will have far reaching consequences, further exacerbating not only pay and promotion gaps, but also decreasing women’s overall representation in the workforce.

Employers play an active role as members of the community, and they must guard against these threats — and in fact champion gender and racial equity even in these uncertain times. As the Institute for Women’s Policy Research CEO C. Nicole Mason told the Boston Globe, “Whether or not women are able to remain in the workforce and retain their jobs is going to be directly tied to the kind of support we give them.” This is not the time to reverse workplace gender equity gains — working parents should not have to be concerned about the expiration of the flexibility afforded to them in the early months following the pandemic, or whether or not they can take paid leave to care for themselves and their loved ones, or have to leave their jobs because the child care systems they rely on are collapsing under the combined weight of decades of devaluing and the pandemic.

With one out of every three men who make hiring decisions saying that when jobs are scarce, “men should have more of a right to a job than women,” it’s clear that there is still so much more work to do in ensuring women truly have equal opportunity in the workplace — and that employers are fully leveraging the talents that working parents bring to the table. Employers have an opportunity to fulfill the CEO association Business Roundtable’s redefinition of the purpose of a corporation to promote “An Economy That Serves All Americans” by treating their employees as key stakeholders and codifying, not phasing out, the systems, policies, and expectations that accommodate working parents who are also caregiving and facilitating their children’s education.

As we face a resurgence of the virus, protecting the health, safety, and wellbeing of employees should extend to their families as well. Employers can do this by offering paid sick time and paid leave, considering allowing flexible work times, providing child care subsidies, making working from home a permanent option, and understanding that the strict separation between work and home is a thing of the past — and for many women juggling care work and paid work, was never a reality to begin with.

Employers, and their employees, also need the support of specific federal and local policy proposals that can help create more viable options for working moms — and all working people — especially those on the knife’s edge of survival. Those policies include an extension of Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, expanded to include immigrant workers who had previously been excluded; extension and expansion of the Paycheck Protection Program; emergency and permanent sick leave legislation; and a significant and permanent investment in the child care infrastructure. Many of these priorities are included in the House-passed HEROES Act, awaiting Senate action. Women Employed is working to advance these policies, and you can take action by visiting https://womenemployed.org/act.

Treating the issue of schools reopening, and all the ensuing complexity, as somehow separate and distinct from our societal and economic health and well-being does a devastating disservice to working parents — particularly low-paid workers, and Black and brown working mothers. As the pandemic continues to unfold — as we see new surges in COVID-19 cases nationally, as cities and business owners reverse previous reopenings, and as we continue to have uncertainty around the development of a vaccine — we continue to hear the rallying cry, “we’re all in this together.” That “we” must include employers not just as economic players, but as critical members of our community.

WE relentlessly pursue equity for women in the workforce by effecting policy change, expanding access to education, & advocating for fair, inclusive workplaces.