We need some creative thinking around the childcare issue in the absence of a ‘return to normal’ any time soon.
Another day and many more unanswerable questions from parents who have childcare issues and are being refused furlough by their employers, despite last-minute news that those who are on parental leave can still apply for furlough after the cut-off date for new joiners if they don’t have childcare. Applying and receiving are two different things, however. What can parents do if they are turned down? Weeks of unpaid leave is not an option most can afford and, according to the news, schools will not even be properly back by September. There is also the prospect of a second wave of infection.
The childcare issue is hard for parents and it’s also hard for employers. Even the good employers who offer flexible working haven’t got it all sorted. It is exhausting to work around your children’s waking hours for weeks on end and reduced hours affect productivity and make parents feel they are a bit of a liability. So what can be done? I admit I don’t know what the answer is, but what seems clear is that there is a need for a full-scale discussion about the problem and for some creative thinking.
There are multiple different childcare scenarios and what job you do can make a big difference. A homeworking job is great, though not possible for all jobs, but what if it involves a lot of confidential or in-depth calls which can only be done in certain hours and you have a lively toddler?
There is childcare/schooling that doesn’t cover all the hours parents need; childcare that costs too much because grandparents or other family members would previously do it for free; childcare/schooling that is not available – any years outside reception, year 1 and year 6; childcare/schooling that is available, but which parents don’t want to use…
We have had a number of NHS workers coming to us who cannot get childcare to cover their shifts, cannot get furlough unless their manager has to pay an agency to cover them…who are working longer hours due to the pressure on them and having to pay for childcare which their family members would normally provide. It seems hugely unjust that those we have been clapping every Thursday for putting their lives on the line are not only not getting a pay rise, but are being penalised financially for doing so. In Wales, childcare, including out of hours care, has been offered free to key workers. I thought the idea might catch on, but it appears not.
At the moment parents are just about hanging on, though many have already lost their jobs or been forced to reduce their hours, the majority of them mums. The long-term impact on gender equality at work will be huge unless we find ways to get around this. Childcare providers would argue for increased funding and investment in flexible childcare and the way we fund childcare and the value we place on it is a central issue. But that won’t get around the problem of people not wanting to send their children to school or childcare, something the figures out yesterday show.
What can employers do? Offering flexible working, particularly homeworking, promoting this to men and women and offering channels for parents to network and vent their frustrations are good ideas. Career breaks, the ability to buy extra annual leave, redeployment to project-based work with periods of rest in between…What more could be done, what could be adapted for smaller companies? The childcare issue is likely to continue for a while and hanging on in there is wearing a bit thin now. We need to have more open discussions on how to help parents get through the next few months, conversations which recognise the centrality of childcare for working parents.