Most employers agree that a diverse workplace benefits from the insights and skills of working parents. After all, parents are often the ones who know best how to relate to coworkers, clients, and customers who are also parents. And it’s the working parents who often have mastered the art (science?) of juggling tasks and getting things done.
But handling home life and work simultaneously isn’t easy in the best of circumstances. Add a worldwide health crisis to the mix, and it can put a serious strain on the employer-employee relationship. The logistics and stress of moving from the office to working at home can even boil over into lawsuits claiming unlawful discrimination.
The changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to allegations that employers are demanding too much when they insist on business as usual from their working-from-home employees, even when those employees need to care for children.
On the flip side, employers may think employees are being unreasonable when they want to turn their pre-COVID work schedules upside down so they can look after children during what should be work time.
Case in Point
One case illustrating the conflict centers on a San Diego, California, mother of a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old. In March, she started working from home, where she also had to tend to her children. She said she tried to work things out so that she could take calls during naptime and work late to make up for taking time during the day to take care of her kids.
But that wasn’t enough. She was fired in June. She claims she lost her job because her boss didn’t like hearing her children in the background on business calls. In her suit, she claims she was subjected to “sexist statements,” and her supervisor was “motivated by a clear bias against mothers,” according to a report in The New York Times.
How Employers Can Help
The need to keep employees working from home means employers need to get creative in finding ways to support workers caring for children. A number of ideas are being floated. For example, in March, UNICEF posted suggestions, including:
- Assess current workplace policies. Look at whether existing policies are supportive enough, and pay close attention to vulnerable groups, such as temporary, informal, or migrant workers; pregnant or nursing mothers; workers with disabilities; and those without benefits such as paid sick leave.
- Be flexible. Flexible arrangements include teleworking, compressing the workweek, or ensuring protected long-term leave.
- Support childcare options. Employers may want to offer childcare referral systems in places where child care remains available and safe. Subsidies also can help.
- Help workers and their families cope with stress. Employers can offer information from reliable sources to support employees who are helping children cope with anxiety and fear.
A blog from payroll services provider Gusto posted in July also suggested ideas, such as:
- Offer dependent care flexible spending accounts. As employers plan future benefits packages, they may decide to offer the pretax accounts that allow parents to save about 30% on qualified care expenses for children under 13, as well as adults who are physically or mentally incapacitated.
- Encourage boundary setting. Even though parents often find themselves needing to mix work and childcare time, employers can let employees know it’s OK to set boundaries between work, family, and leisure time.
- Help parents help themselves. Many employers offer Slack channels or some other support network so employees can share solutions to common issues and encourage each other.
Avoiding Legal Trouble
Of course, employers have a right to expect their employees to be productive even when they have childcare responsibilities, but when talking to employees about performance issues, employers need to make sure they’re not singling out parents and ignoring similar performance problems in childless employees.
“Understandably, employers have a significant interest in employee productivity and ability to focus on their work,” Marylou Fabbo, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser P.C. in Springfield, Massachusetts, says.
If children don’t interfere with an employee’s work, there’s no need to address problems such as the background noise the San Diego woman’s boss complained about. But when an employee is distracted by children or something else and performance suffers, employers need to address the problem—carefully.
“To reduce the risk of gender discrimination claims, employers need to be careful not to treat mothers different than fathers when it comes to children at home with a parent during working hours,” Fabbo says.
So, employers need to guard against gender discrimination as they work out problems with employees dealing with work and children simultaneously. A work-from-home success story is one in which there is “a seamless transition from the physical workplace to the home and employee performance and productivity doesn’t change,” Fabbo says. “Most work-from-home arrangements fall into that category.”
But when children or other distractions result in a lack of productivity, availability, and focus, “employers should not lower their expectations simply because their employees are not in the office,” Fabbo says.
Background noise isn’t the only issue for employers to deal with. With all the virtual meetings going on, bosses, customers, and clients are getting a peek into employees’ homes, leading to concerns about discrimination and privacy. For example, would the boss be justified in telling an employee to prepare a professional-looking space if dirty dishes or other clutter is visible in the background during a Zoom meeting?
“When a home workspace is visible during a virtual meeting, employers are within their rights to remind employees that their home ‘office’ should reflect a businesslike environment,” Fabbo says.
But discrimination risks should be kept in mind. Fabbo says if an employer permits an employee to keep a messy in-office work space that is visible to clients or customers, employees working at home who are asked to clean up may believe they are being singled out.
Do you know what your obligations are for offering paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)? Join Skoler, Abbott & Presser P.C.’s Amelia Holstrom, for a live webinar on August 17, 2020, to learn what your legal obligations are for employees who have childcare issues due to COVID-19. Holstrom will also share best practices for helping those employees and minimizing workplace disruption. Click here to learn more, or to register today!