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Helping Employees During Back to School Time

Back to school looks different this year as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools as well as workplaces to make significant changes to their usual operations.
Mother teaching daughter at home

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools as well as workplaces to make significant changes to their usual operations. Many students finished the 2019-20 school year via distance learning, while many parents and caretakers have either been out of work, working remotely, or have continued to go into work. With the 2020-21 school year approaching and already begun for some, many working parents are grappling with how they can log full workdays without sacrificing their child's education, job performance, and mental health. Employers will play a critical role in helping working parents maintain a balance between their personal and professional obligations in a way that works for everyone.

Challenges families face as schools reopen

Parents may be considering the potential risks of kids going back to school, and alternatively how having them at home will impact their work schedule. Working parents of school-age children are contending with the following possible scenarios:

  • Some schools will fully reopen while others are opting for distance learning, at least for the first few months of the school year.
  • Some schools may opt for a hybrid model setup, where kids are on site for part of the school week and at home for the remainder. For working parents, this could mean sporadic periods of unavailability to team members and customers as they tend to their kids and at-home learning.
  • If kids go to school in-person and there is a case of coronavirus, depending on school guidelines staff and students may be required to quarantine for 14 days. In such a case, parents may need to be home or find childcare for this period of time.
  • If kids will be doing virtual learning at the start of the school year and the parent is working from home, the employee may have to balance childcare with their job responsibilities during work hours.

What can employers do to help?

Employers need to anticipate and prepare for working parents to have long-term, childcare-related challenges. If you have employees who are struggling with balancing childcare and work, it's important to have an honest and direct communication so that together you can better understand the employee's work limitations, identify whether a reasonable accommodation for their situation is available, and explore any additional options that may be available.

Create a plan with working parents

Part of having direct communication with an employee includes setting aside any preconceived notions of what is and is not reasonable, or what an employee can or cannot do, and approach this process from the perspective of what you can do to help this person remain a productive worker. Documentation is also key when an employee requests time off due to a childcare reason. Engage with employees to try to understand why they are unable to work or telework, explore possible options, and evaluate eligibility for leave. More specifically, work through the following steps:

  1. Determine the essential functions of the position and how they have been modified for COVID-19.
  2. Communicate with the employee to learn more about their limitations and how to overcome them. Employers can ask questions, but make sure not to dive too deep into their personal lives in a way that goes beyond what is allowed by law (more on this below).
  3. Identify potential accommodations if and where possible:
    • Be flexible with return to work date and schedule.
    • Each employee may have a different situation that needs to be accommodated
    • Consider full-time or partial telework if the position allows for it.
    • Consider implementing flexible hours or staggered weekly schedule.
  4. Understand the employee's preference
  5. Document the process and accommodations being offered

While employers can ask some questions, they should not make assumptions and must accept answers given by employees at face value. However, employers can ask that employees certify the answers given so that they have the necessary documentation to support leave requests.

Employees may be eligible for leave under Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)

The FFCRA provides emergency paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave for all employees of a covered employer with fewer than 500 employees for specified reasons related to COVID-19. Under the FFCRA, an employee may be able to take emergency paid sick leave (EPSL) from the first day back in the workplace, or from the first day that you instruct the employee to report back to work. However, to take expanded family and medical leave (EFML) , the employee must be employed for 30 calendar days. 

FFCRA leave may be available for an employee to care for a family member for COVID-19 reasons. The U.S. Department of Labor published FAQs to assist employers in determining when an employee may be eligible for such leave. Employers also should revisit their leave policies in anticipation of their workforce using leave in these circumstances.

Under the FFCRA, an employee qualifies for paid sick time if the employee is unable to work (or unable to telework) due to a need for leave because the employee is:

  • Subject to a federal, state, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19.
  • Advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19.
  • Experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking a medical diagnosis.
  • Caring for an individual who needs to quarantine, isolate, or self-quarantine under government order or health care advisor advice.
  • Caring for a child whose school or place of care has been closed, or the childcare provider of the child is unavailable, for reasons related to COVID-19.
  • Experiencing any other substantially similar condition specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Labor.

Under the FFCRA, an employee qualifies for expanded family leave if the employee is caring for a child whose school or place of care is closed (or child care provider is unavailable) for reasons related to COVID-19.

What if the employee isn't eligible for leave under FFCRA?

There may be circumstances where an employee is unable to return to work but is not eligible for leave under the FFCRA. For example, the employer may have more than 500 employees, or the request for leave does not fall under one of the qualifying reasons listed above. Whenever an employee is unable to work, talk with the employee to try to determine why the employee is unable to return. Depending on what the employee discloses, evaluate if any other leaves apply — either by law or according to an internal policy.

Think through the following:

  • Review workplace policies regarding availability of any paid or unpaid leave time.
  • Consider any applicable state or local laws providing for paid or unpaid leave.

Employers should also review their obligations, if any, under state or local law to offer remote work.  Even if remote work is not legally required, an employer may want to consider allowing the employee to work remotely with the knowledge that if this is permitted, it must be applied consistently to other employees.

Provide Reasonable Accommodations to Employees with Disabilities

An employee who has a disability that puts him or her at greater risk from COVID-19 and may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or similar state law. Even with the constraints imposed by a pandemic, some accommodations may meet an employee's needs on a temporary basis without causing undue hardship on the employer.

Reasonable accommodations may include but are not limited to:

  • Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible or safe;
  • Job restructuring;
  • Part-time or modified work schedules;
  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE);
  • Reassignment to a vacant position;
  • Acquisition or modifications of equipment or devices;
  • Appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials, or policies;
  • The provision of qualified readers or interpreters; and
  • Other similar accommodations for individuals with disabilities (may include an unpaid leave of absence)

The EEOC suggests, “In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website for types of accommodations, JAN's materials specific to COVID-19 are at”

Make Employees Aware of the State and local laws

The types of accommodations available to employees may depend on the laws that apply to your specific business, including federal, state and local laws. In addition to the FFCRA, addressed above, there may be state or local laws that provide leave for an employees (including but not limited to paid sick leave, paid family leave, or other leave programs).If an employee is eligible for leave, employers must follow any applicable documentation requirements, examples of which can include completing leave requests or requesting documentation from an employee that certifies the unavailability of a school or child care provider.

If an employee requests and uses various leaves concurrently, you must track and document them. For example, employees in California are entitled to time off under the FMLA and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), which gives eligible employees 12 weeks of paid or unpaid job-protected leave during a 12-month period. In many circumstances, the 12 weeks would run concurrently with time off provided under FMLA. However, CFRA does not allow for time off to care for a child due to a school closure. So an employee may use 12 weeks of EFMLA for a school closure and then still be eligible to take time off under CFRA for a qualifying reason.

In addition, employees may be eligible to use vacation or PTO to care for a child.

Why is work/life balance important when kids go back to school?

The last few months of the 2019-20 school year were tenuous as working parents attempted to supervise their kids and help with school, often while juggling their own work responsibilities. Many employers realize the challenge and impact of workplace stress, and plan to take steps to provide support. In fact, more than half of HR leaders polled in the 2020 Paychex Pulse of HR Survey cited managing employee stress among their top challenges in response to COVID-19. Knowing that businesses and individuals alike are planning for the long-term in regard to the pandemic, have an open and honest conversation with working parents about how you as an employer may be able to help them during the 2020-21 school year.

How to help employees manage work/life balance as kids go back to school

Employers should proactively engage with their employees before the start of the school year to anticipate what scheduling or job-duty changes need to be made. While remote work isn't feasible for all employees, you may be able to support them and help them find work/life balance by:

Providing valuable benefits

An employee assistance program, in particular, can help employees resolve a variety of issues that contribute to stress, which in turn, may be adversely affecting their work performance and morale. This can be useful to your staff at any time, but could become particularly beneficial as they juggle work and personal obligations during the pandemic.

Embracing mobility tools

Certain mobile technologies can help employees who are teleworking during back to school time easier. Business leaders already realize the benefits of adopting such tools: 46 percent of respondents in a recent Paychex survey1 say they'll rely more on technology from here on out to help remote workers stay in touch throughout the pandemic. Project management tools, learning management systems, and HR self-service tools are just a few ways that all your remote employees can maintain important team connections and communications.

Incorporating balance into company culture

Aside from the stress brought on from the COVID-19 pandemic, office politics and team dynamics can create stress on a day-to-day basis. Gossip, negativity, and other issues can lower employee morale and make it difficult for workers to be productive. Invest in your company culture to minimize these issues, and understand that all employees — parents and non-parents alike — can benefit from a company that supports a healthy work/life balance.

Being mindful of school schedules

When you can, provide as much advance notice as possible regarding your business's reopening plans or work schedule changes. This can assist working parents make plans for kids going back to school and childcare.

How to support employees balancing work and personal obligations during COVID-19

The realities of being a working parent often mean that you're being pulled in multiple directions. Add to this current stay-at-home orders, schooling uncertainties, and health concerns over COVID-19, and employees face a strain on their work/life balance like never before. This is an opportunity for employers to plan in advance, communicate with staff, and have a thorough understanding of applicable laws and accommodations, particularly as back to school time draws closer. Get assistance with the help of an HR consultant, and keep up with the latest information on COVID-19 by visiting the Paychex Coronavirus Help Center.

Take our quiz to test your business's back-to-school preparedness

As schools reopen, your employees might need time off to accommodate their children's distance-learning requirements. How well is your business prepared to navigate applicable leave laws and regulations? Evaluate your preparedness with our interactive quiz:


1Paychex conducted five separate online surveys of 300 principals of U.S.-based businesses with two to 500 employees in 2020. Wave 1 was fielded April 17-20; Wave 2, April 24-27; Wave 3, May 1-4; Wave 4, May 15-17; Wave 5, June 11-15. Each survey has a +/-5.66% margin of error.



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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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