On the heels of summer comes a tumultuous time for working parents: back-to-school season. No sooner have they sorted out their dizzying summer schedules and pieced together summer child care—a nightmare for many—than the start of the school year arrives to once again upend their routines and budgets.
The National Retail Federation estimates parents will shell out a record-breaking amount of cash on school shopping this year—nearly $900 for families with school-aged kids. But as parents check off the backpacks, computers, and apparel from their lists, for many, there are even more costs. With the school day ending hours before the workday for most working parents, the 3 p.m.-to-6 p.m. window leaves an after-school childcare gap. And with after-school sitters costing families around $275 per week on average, this gap tacks on an additional financial burden for working parents.
The stress of transitioning from summer to fall isn’t limited to finances. Working parents will also likely need to recalibrate work schedules to accommodate morning drop-offs and afternoon pickups, all while keeping their kids on track with schoolwork and managing hectic school and extracurricular schedules. And those schedules they’ll work so hard to maintain? They’ll be out the window before they know it with early dismissals, school closures, and impending sicknesses that will keep kids at home.
The whirlwind of back-to-school season creates a perfect storm for workplace distraction, absenteeism, and productivity loss and could threaten employers’ retention of working parents. But there are ways employers can ease the logistical and financial obstacles of back to school for working parents.
3 Back-to-School Support Systems for Working Parents
1. Allow Flexibility
When it comes to managing familial duties on top of a full-time workload, flexibility makes an enormous difference for working parents throughout the year but especially during challenging times like back to school. With employees reporting they have better flexibility with their hours and more time with their families than ever before, it’s no wonder that nearly half of employees say a flexible schedule is more important to them than their salary.
Given this, leaders will want to have open communication with individuals about what flexibility looks like for them so they can accommodate. This could mean ensuring important meetings aren’t scheduled during morning drop-off/afternoon pickup times or that parents are empowered with flexible hours so they can log off early to chaperone a field trip or attend a school assembly. Communication and teamwork are key here.
2. Provide Family Care Benefits
Employer-sponsored family care benefits go a long way toward helping parents manage the after-school care gap, as well as other unexpected disruptions to their day-to-day childcare arrangements.
More and more employers are recognizing this pressing need for childcare benefits and realizing their measurable impact on working parents’ performance. Care.com’s 2023 “Future of Benefits Report” found that nearly half of employers are prioritizing childcare benefits more in 2023. Additionally, 80% of HR leaders surveyed said that childcare benefits have a positive impact on productivity, while 78% reported they boost recruitment and retention.
One example of this type of benefit is an employer-subsidized membership to an online caregiving platform, which can enable parents to find an after-school sitter for coverage on in-office days or a helper to drive kids to extracurriculars while remote workers finish their workday. As test scores continue to plummet for children in the United States post-pandemic, access to either an on-demand tutoring service or a caregiving platform offering tutors also eases the burden and provides peace of mind. And for times when care arrangements fall through during the school year, employers can support working parents with access to employer-subsidized childcare benefits like backup care.
The reality is that for parents, one of the biggest hurdles with the school year’s return is the inevitable shake-ups to their set routine. These benefits can help fill childcare gaps for parents, keeping them productive and on the job.
3. Help with Expenses
Back to school is also a financial headache for families, with inflation impacting essentials like classroom supplies, costly tech equipment, and new clothes. And that’s all before the costs of after-school child care and extracurricular activities.
One way workplaces can help soften the blow of these costs for working parents is through an employer-sponsored discount program that gives parents access to back-to-school savings on items like laptops and clothing as they check off their shopping lists. To help defray childcare costs, another fantastic benefit that can help parents is a dependent care flexible spending account. By offering this, working parents can set aside pretax dollars to pay for their childcare expenses, including after-school programs or care.
Finally, financial wellness benefits are rising in popularity among working parents who are feeling the financial pressure in today’s challenging economic climate. In fact, the “Future of Benefits Report” found 86% of employers are considering increasing financial wellness benefits this year.
Financial tools run the gamut from informative webinars on topics such as saving for college to one-on-one meetings with financial professionals to programs for things like tuition reimbursement, student loan repayments, and emergency savings plans.
The bottom line is this: Parents don’t stop being parents when the workday begins, and that’s rarely more apparent than during back-to-school season, which pulls them—and their wallets—in multiple directions. By putting meaningful support systems in place, employers can equip parents with tools to make them successful at home and at work.
Wes Burke is the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) of Care.com, the largest online platform for finding and managing high-quality family care. Its enterprise division, Care for Business, offers a suite of employer-sponsored caregiving benefits that cover the care needs of working families. As CHRO, he oversees Care.com’s global human resources function, including people operations, workforce strategy, and culture and engagement.