Helping Employees During Back to School Time
Many students finished the 2020-21 school year in a hybrid fashion, spending some days (or, in some cases, half-days) in the classroom — while others continued learning completely remotely. At the same time, many of their parents or caretakers either went back to work full-time, started working in a hybrid fashion, or continued working remotely (some, permanently).
As the 2021-22 school year begins, many working parents are still left grappling with the uncertainty of what the school year might bring with concerns related to COVID-19 variants. Will their kids be able to return to a physical school building full-time? And if so, will it continue for the full school year? Will they be able complete full workdays without sacrificing their child's education, job performance, and mental health?
To help working parents continue maintaining a balance between their personal and professional obligations during these unpredictable times, employers may wish to provide flexible work arrangements that work for everyone.
Challenges families face as schools reopen
Parents may be considering the potential risks of kids returning to a physical school building. Alternatively, those whose children are not returning to the classroom on a full-time basis, or who will continue learning remotely, may be concerned about how at-home learning may impact their work schedule. Working parents of school-age children are contending with a number of possible scenarios that include:
- Some schools will fully reopen, while others will continue to offer remote learning options.
- Some schools may provide students with a hybrid learning model, where students are on site some school days, and are at home for the remainder. For working parents, this can make it difficult to balance home and work life, especially on days when their children are learning at home or do not have a structured school program.
- If students go to school in-person and there is a reported case of COVID-19, depending on school guidelines (which often follow existing federal, state and local guidelines), staff and students may be required to quarantine and remain out of school for designated periods of time. In such a case, parents may need to be home or find childcare for this period of time.
- If students will be doing any form of remote learning and the parent is working from home, the parent may have to balance childcare with their job responsibilities during work hours.
What can employers do to help working parents as kids return to school?
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
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:
- Determine the essential functions of the position and how they have been modified for COVID-19.
- Communicate with the employee to learn more about their limitations and how to overcome them. While employers are permitted to ask some questions, you must make sure not to dive too deep into the employee’s personal life in a way that goes beyond what is allowed by law. You 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 you have the necessary documentation to support leave requests.
- Identify potential accommodations if and where possible:
- Be flexible with a date for returning to the office (if applicable).
- Consider full-time or partial telework if the position allows for it.
- Consider implementing flexible hours or staggered weekly schedule.
- Understand the employee's preference.
- Document the process and accommodations being offered.
Understand employee leave eligibility
Employers should be aware that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been a number of laws and regulations enacted related to paid and unpaid leave. Be sure to review your workplace policies regarding availability of any paid or unpaid leave time, and consider any applicable state or local laws for providing paid or unpaid leave. To review your state’s paid leave directives, visit our COVID-19 State Resource map.
If an employee is eligible for leave, employers must follow any applicable documentation requirements, which can include completing leave requests or requesting documentation from an employee.
As an employer you should also review your obligations to offer remote work, if any, under state or local law. Even if remote work is not legally required, employers 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 them at greater risk from COVID-19 may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or similar state law. Even with the constraints imposed by the pandemic, some accommodations may meet an employee's needs on a temporary basis without causing undue hardship on their 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, or JAN's materials specific to COVID-19.
The types of accommodations available to employees may depend on the laws that apply to your specific business, including federal, state and local laws. There may be state or local laws that provide leave for employees (including but not limited to paid sick leave, paid family leave, or other leave programs).
In addition, employees may be eligible to use vacation or PTO to care for a child.
Implement policies that support work/life balance
After you’ve proactively engaged with employees to anticipate what adjustments need to be made to their role or work schedule, you may be able to support them and help them find work/life balance by:
1. 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 may be particularly beneficial as they juggle work and personal obligations during the pandemic.
2. Embracing mobility tools
Certain mobile technologies can help make teleworking easier for employees during the school year. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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 in making plans for kids going back to school and childcare.
The realities of being a working parent often mean that you're being pulled in multiple directions. Add schooling (or childcare) uncertainties, as well as health concerns over COVID-19, and your employees are likely to face a strain on their work/life balance unlike ever before.
This is, undoubtedly, a critical time for employers to proactively communicate with staff about work schedules and the potential for flexibility, and to review your business policies, all applicable leave laws, and reasonable accommodations.
For the latest information and helpful resources regarding COVID-19 and the workplace, visit the Paychex COVID-19 Help Center. And, for additional assistance as you navigate the new work landscape, learn more about our HR consulting services.