When Employees Don’t Have Childcare

May 13, 2024

I had a wonderful conversation last week with Karla Miller, Washington Post columnist. I have long admired her practical, compassionate, business-forward solutions to the workplace problems of employees and employers.

We talked about a question she had received from a reader about the pressures on employers when employees can’t find or can’t afford childcare. Based on the calls I receive, this is happening with greater frequency since the pandemic. Many employers want to help these panicked employees for compassionate and economic reasons: many industries are still facing a labor shortage that makes trying to retain good, experienced workers a wise business goal.

Of course, we also talked about the pressures on the parents who don’t have childcare. I suggested several avenues for the employee to explore – a coach to help the employee manage her finances, think creatively about childcare, developing ways she can remain productive at work with flexible scheduling – but these are admittedly very poor substitutes for a more comprehensive solution. It is neither feasible nor ethical to try to solve societal issues with individual-based remedies.

Should employers play a larger role in providing childcare? This is a hot topic. Karla mentions several benefits that employers could provide: pretax dependent-care savings accounts, mindful scheduling practices, and finding space at work for a sitter to watch the baby. Some companies may be able to provide on-site or back-up childcare, childcare stipends, mental health benefits, and performance coaching. A growing number of employers are providing such benefits as a way to attract and retain employees.

Is there a role for government? I am in the camp that views childcare and eldercare as necessary infrastructure to keep our economy growing.

The comments to Karla’s column provide a robust conversation. Some demonstrate the maternal wall bias that I discussed with Karla and judgments based on their own experiences, but most focus on the realities of childcare, finances, and the economics of work. They show flexible thinking about possible changes to the workplace and how parents and other caregivers are managed. The creative ideas include: work with the employee to change duties to be more compatible with her childcare needs, at least for the short-term; consider the long-term value of retaining the employee when evaluating options; focus on actual performance, which may be sufficient; and reconsider snap judgments made about working parents.

Several comments wondered about the effect on other employees of the way the employer treats this mother. That is a very important topic. The supervisor has to be careful about the signals they send with their treatment of this employee. If they are too lenient, others may be resentful or take it as a sign that they can slack off. If they are too tough, others may feel bad for this employee and wonder if they themselves will not be supported if a need arises in the future. Either way, it is bad for morale and productivity. It is important for all employees to feel valued and supported, so the solution for this supervisor includes keeping communication open with all employees (my suggestion: weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one check-ins), and some performance goal-setting with the mother with changes to the job as necessary. The supervisor’s support should not include involvement in the mother’s personal life but rather should focus on the employer’s resources that can help her succeed in her job.

If you are facing similar challenges in your workplace, feel free to contact us. We are available for quick, low-cost consultations to help you resolve situations like the one presented to Karla, as well as for longer consulting engagements.

© Cynthia Thomas Calvert.

Categories: Blog

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