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We need to value childcare more and see it not as an individual thing, but as part of our basic work infrastructure.
How can you cover for all the different family circumstances people find themselves in during the COVID-19 crisis?
While some key worker parents may be anxious about accessing formal childcare to minimise potential risk to loved ones, others will feel the exact opposite and be keen to use informal care, such as healthy, younger grandparents, to minimise risk to their children [even though the guidance is unclear about this]. Different people come to different conclusions about risk based on their own personal situation. None of this is easy. People are having to make terrible choices, for instance, to isolate from their children while they work, whether to take unpaid leave and risk having no money for food or potentially put their children at risk by continuing to work in conditions where they don’t feel safe.
The new updated guidance on childcare and furloughing gives parents more options, although it is still very much down to the employer to decide what constitutes inability to work due to childcare reasons and that can be a really hard decision for them to make. We’ve already been contacted by several parents worried their employer will not allow them to be furloughed. In theory, the updated guidance, which has not been widely promoted, could cover a whole lot of parents. Who can effectively work with young children around? How do you decide? Good managers will know their teams and their circumstances better than others, but making those sort of decisions can lead to tensions with other colleagues. And what about other caring responsibilities?
Tensions are already surfacing over all sorts of other coronavirus-related issues, for instance, which workers are able to work from home and which can’t and which are furloughed and which aren’t [there can be tensions either way]. Will we come out of all of this with a new awareness of and empathy for the caring responsibilities of many workers, or with a greater sense of resentment towards parents and other carers? Will we come out of this ready to embrace more remote working or desperate to get back to the office or another non-home setting?
On the empathy issue, it should not be assumed that everyone gets the difficulties of working and childcare/homeschooling. An article in People Management the other day provided an example. It cited Carl Atkinson, partner at law firm Gunnercooke, who said he had been advising employers that being unable to work because of caring responsibilities was a personal reason and that they should therefore be placed on unpaid leave. This was indeed in line with government guidance at the time – which suggested people use unpaid leave or annual leave to cover childcare difficulties. The problem, of course, is that, even if you can afford it, parental leave only lasts for a few weeks unless you have a lot of children; ditto annual leave and the coronavirus problems are likely to last much, much longer. We had a card from secondary school the other day which said see you in September.
Let’s hope we emerge from this with a renewed appreciation of childcare. I’m sure parents will; but I’m not so sure about government. Childcare seems to come quite a way down their priority list: they have been slow to understand how crucial childcare is to work and to take on board the fact that so many people totally rely on informal care due to the cost.
Childcare is absolutely fundamental to employment. It is not a nice to have; it is not an individual choice; and it is not just about supporting women to work – it is about supporting the workforce generally. Childcare is an absolutely vital part of a functioning modern society and we should value it properly.