HR firm shares ideas to support working parents

Challenges of school unknowns this fall are a heavy burden that employers can help ease, strategists say.
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The pandemic is causing headaches for parents and employers alike. iStock

HR Collaborative said employers shouldn’t fall back on wishful thinking about kids’ return-to-learning realities this fall, but instead should help employees “hope for the best and plan for the worst.”

Beth Kelly, president, and Julie Burmania, HR business partner, with Grand Rapids-based HR Collaborative spoke to the Business Journal this month about how employers can help their workers with school-aged children prepare for a variety of possibilities due to the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking on traditional learning formats.

At press time, schools across West Michigan had either committed to all in-person, all-virtual or a combination of both learning formats for the 2020-21 school year, and some were still without a game plan. And companies with multiple locations have to follow each state and individual district’s varying guidelines based on the number of COVID-19 cases in each region, creating a serious headache.

Burmania said she was surprised by the number of employer clients who were still in wait-and-see mode rather than creating a proactive set of strategies to help working parents supervise their children’s learning while remaining on the payroll. Most employers and parents were hoping this fall was the light at the end of the tunnel, and they would no longer have to juggle working, child care and teaching all at the same time.

But with a full and/or permanent return-to-the-classroom looking unlikely across the country and with child care options extremely limited, that light is now much farther away.

HR Collaborative is scheduling internal conversations one-on-one with employees about their individual situations because the firm only has about 20 teammates and can do that. For larger companies, Burmania said a survey of needs could be an alternative option.

Either way, HR Collaborative is studying, adopting and recommending a number of best practices that are aimed at producing the best outcomes for all parties this fall.

Some of the options the firm is considering internally and recommending to clients include flexible work arrangements, including midday breaks parents can take to help school their children, while returning to work later in the evening; continued remote work for those who can; a modified workday, including changing an employee’s status from full time to part time; short-term leave, if it’s an option under the employee’s benefits package; engaging the community in finding tutors or local support systems that can help with the virtual education, such as co-ops or help from intermediate school districts or First Steps Kent; employer-provided subsidies for tutoring or child care; and more.

“There’s some good discussion that way. Now bringing it to fruition and bringing the right leaders together to come up with a meaningful solution — I think we’re just in the brainstorming stages of that right now,” Burmania said.

Kelly and Burmania said several legal issues arise during these discussions. One is that in making accommodations for employees who are parents, employers have to be careful not to unduly burden employees who are not parents, opening themselves up to discrimination lawsuits.

“I would encourage employers to be cautious of that, so that we don’t burn out those who aren’t dealing with that parenting challenge and cause a divide between the two groups, because I could see that happening pretty quickly if it becomes too burdensome for those who are left to pick up their normal day-to-day tasks,” Burmania said.

The reverse also is true — that how an employer chooses to respond to this issue may contribute to claims of disparate impact against women or discrimination based on family responsibilities.

Employers also need to consider accommodations for high-risk groups, as well as eligibility for Family Medical Leave Act and Families First Coronavirus Response Act employer paid leave.

According to a National Law Review article last month, the U.S. Department of Labor in a recent FAQ sheet noted employers are allowed to pay employees who work in separate smaller blocks throughout the day only for hours actually worked without violating the continuous workday rule, which is a legal protection for them.

Kelly and Burmania said their firm still is brainstorming how to accommodate employees who can’t commit to work at the same level that they would without the pandemic in play. They are welcoming outside ideas and partnerships.

The team at HR Collaborative can be reached at hrcollaborative.net/contact-us

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