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Pandemic sparks major changes in child care, family-friendly business practices

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After several weeks under a stay-at-home order, Gov. Roy Cooper announced plans this week to transition into Phase 1 of his three-phase reopening plan for North Carolina starting Friday, May 8 at 5 p.m. The new order allows retail stores and other businesses to open under certain restrictions.

With N.C. schools closed for in-person instruction for the rest of the year, it’s unclear how many working parents will transition back into the office and how businesses will update their practices to help families adjust to the new “normal” caused by the pandemic.

Emily Swartzlander

Business North Carolina spoke to Emily Swartzlander, founder of Family Forward NC, about the changing landscape of family-friendly workplace practices. Her group is an initiative of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation. Its mission is to improve children’s health and well-being and keep North Carolina’s businesses competitive, while offering resources to N.C. companies looking to adopt family-friendly business practices.

How do you think the pandemic has changed the landscape of family-friendly business practices?

The pandemic has exposed what working parents and (increasingly) the business community have known for some time. Family-friendly business practices such as paid leave or flexible work are not “niceties.” They are essential, now more than ever, to ensuring our businesses thrive and our economy prospers.

Working parents make up a third of the workforce. That means one in three workers across North Carolina is currently working in our new normal while also caring full time for their children. For those parents who can work from home, flexible work helps in the short term. And we’ve seen businesses of all kinds adapt quickly to a work from home model.

But many parents can’t work from home — especially essential workers. So policies that ensure access to care, support child care providers and offer financial support to employees, such as a child care reimbursements or stipends, are critical right now. One example of this in North Carolina is the YWCA of Lower Cape Fear, which already offered discounted child care to its own employees and is now also offering reduced rates and scholarships for care to essential workers in the community.

Finally, the pandemic has shed a bright light on the need for paid leave, especially in the restaurant and manufacturing industries. More than half of grocery, retail and restaurant workers had no paid leave prior to the pandemic. And we’ve seen examples in manufacturing and food processing – most notably in meat processing facilities – where businesses have had to close due to outbreaks. The federal government’s emergency coronavirus paid sick leave law allows for many workers to receive leave; however, there are several exceptions. And as the pandemic continues, ensuring workers have access to paid sick leave is a business and public health issue. Companies such as Harris Teeter and Food Lion are offering bonus pay or have altered their policies in the short term. But long-term policies are needed.

As North Carolina businesses begin to reopen, how should businesses adapt to accommodate families with children while schools remain closed? What new policies could help with this transition?

As we phase into opening our state, more and more parents will be asked to return to the office. This means access to high-quality, affordable child care must become part of the return to work solution.

Parents were already challenged to find and afford child care prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. States were losing more than $1 billion annually in economic activity due to breakdowns in child care. Seventy-five percent of US moms and 50 percent of US dads said they quit a job, switched jobs, or passed up work opportunities because of child care needs. In North Carolina, 99 of 100 counties were infant and toddler child care deserts prior to COVID-19, meaning there was one space available in a high-quality facility for every four infants and toddlers. And as a result of COVID-19, 43% of NC’s child care facilitieshave closed their doors, and many are struggling to reopen.

There are several practices businesses can use to support employees returning to work in an out-of-home setting. We’ve seen some employers add temporary paid emergency leave or child care leave. Employers can also consider a match to dependent care savings accounts, or a stipend or reimbursement. Offering back-up or emergency care is also an option.

For businesses that can allow employees to work from home, understanding that the new normal for working parents may include regularly having children at home during work hours is key, and flexibility in all its forms will be crucial.

Have officials at the federal and state level implemented policies to aid child care centers?

The child care industry was hit hard by the pandemic. A survey from the Bipartisan Policy Center last month found that 60% of licensed childcare providers had already closed their doors in the wake of the pandemic. And nearly half of the more than 11,500 providers surveyed in by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in March said their facilities wouldn’t survive being close for more than two weeks without public investment.

Gov. Cooper and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services have stepped in to provide bonus payments directly to child care workers. Full-time teaching staff will receive $950 per month and nonteaching staff will receive $525 per month in both child care centers and family child care homes, with adjusted rates for part-time staff. Providers will also receive funding to cover administrative costs associated with these bonuses. The state is also providing emergency child care financial aid to essential workers and is ensuring that the state will continue to pay child care subsidies and parent copayments until providers reopen.

With regard to federal support, the Cares Act provides $3.5 billion in funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant and $750 million for Head Start out of the $2 trillion in spending. Providers can also access Small Business Administration loans, which can be forgiven if used to pay wages, utilities and rent or mortgage costs.

However, many child care advocates warn this is not enough support to keep the industry viable. The business community must be part of the solution, because every industry relies on child care to come back.

How do all of the above issues impact families and children in marginalized communities, where the virus is more widespread?

People of color and workers from marginalized communities have been impacted more by the pandemic in every way. When it comes to family-friendly workplace practices, a higher percent of people of color work in industries that are less likely to have access to paid leave and other family-friendly policies. This includes many of our essential workers in grocery stores, warehouses, nursing homes, and farms. Ensuring family-friendly policies is critical for everyone, but especially for workers who need it more and who, traditionally, have not had access.

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