Jun 20, 2023

Childcare Challenges and Working Parents as featured in the Birmingham Business Journal Childcare Special Issue – Table of Experts

Rebecca Tipton, SHRM-SCP

HR Client Services Manager, BMSS HR Advisory Services

Putting the “Resource” in Human Resource Consulting

What are some of the most significant challenges that working parents face when it comes to childcare, and how can businesses help to address these challenges?

One of the biggest hurdles that working parents face regarding childcare is the actual cost as it has become quite expensive. There are a couple of ways that an employer can ease that burden, the first of which is by providing Dependent Care Flexible Spending Accounts, a benefit plan that allows for employees to identify a pre-tax deduction that covers the amount anticipated for childcare expenses throughout the year. This can be provided to the employee as a completely voluntary benefit funded fully by deductions from the employee’s pay, or the business can choose to provide an employer contribution effectively serving as a stipend for childcare expenses. Another great option is for the employer to work with local childcare centers to offer an employee discount.

Another large hurdle comes from the scheduling disruptions resulting from drop-off and pick-up times not aligning with the parent’s working schedule or from an unexpected lack of childcare due to issues with the childcare or the child’s illness. When it comes to helping working parents with the conflict of managing their work schedule and their childcare’s pick-up and drop-off schedule, employers should consider offering flexible schedules, such as allowing the employee to report to work earlier to accommodate earlier departure, or even allowing the employee to leave to pick up their child and finish the workday remotely provided the scope of work allows. Additionally, the employer can create a referral list of local childcare agencies complete with reviews from other working parents who have used those locations so that the process can be more convenient to their work location. Managing the schedule disruptions that result from unexpected childcare issues, such as the child needing to stay home to recover from a fever, can be harder to manage as they are unplanned. However, it can become easier to manage, and less stressful on the employee, if businesses create contingency plans within their departments that delineate how to reallocate assignments if needed to allow for the affected employee to work remotely on any available projects that do not require completion onsite. During the recent pandemic, we even saw businesses set up customer-facing monitors to support their employees needing to work from home due to childcare issues. While this may not always be ideal, it is a great way to show support for employees’ needs when the unexpected occurs.

How do childcare programs and services impact workforce productivity, and what can businesses do to support access to quality childcare for their employees?

As COVID-19 showed us, reliable childcare is essential for productivity due to the scheduling disruptions that can occur for onsite work. It additionally affects productivity for remote workers as, and I believe most parents would agree, children rarely sit still for a continuous 8 hours if the parent is unable to find someone to care for them. Additionally, if the parent does not have a reliable and consistent source of childcare, the constant worry of being able to find someone to watch the child can be a huge stress in a working parent’s life that will affect their ability to focus on their assigned responsibilities or perform at their best level. To combat this, employers could consider developing a childcare referral service that includes emergency childcare service providers and reviews from any employees who have used the listed services. Another option is providing childcare at the employer’s location, either by sponsoring the program themselves or contracting out a portion of the worksite location to an agency. Of course, this does require a bit of legwork to ensure the proper licenses, permits, and safety standards are covered, but it can help your employees with children to worry less about making it to drop-offs/pick-ups on time and give them the ability to use their available break time to drop in and see their child, which can improve morale and demonstrate support for your employees’ work/life balance.

What are some best practices for implementing family-friendly policies in the workplace, and how can businesses promote these policies to attract and retain top talent?

Unfortunately, introducing new benefits or policies that specifically benefit employees who have children can also have a negative effect for your employees who do not have children or whose children are matured to the point where childcare support is no longer an issue. To combat this, employers could consider setting up their benefit plan by offering any available financial assistance as a flex credit that employees without children would have the option of applying to another benefit or by offering any flexible scheduling and remote work to those without children as well. Employers should also be careful with their communication plan to include how these policies or benefits actually benefit employees company-wide such as preventing staffing shortages resulting from childcare issues or promoting a more positive work environment for all. Additionally, employers should include family-friendly policies and benefits in their recruiting efforts as a marketing strategy. Unemployment numbers are still low and will be for a while, so employers need to start being strategic with their recruitment efforts by demonstrating to potential applicants why they should want to work for the employer, and one of the easiest ways to do so is by advertising your offered benefits and flexible policies directly in your job posting, preparing a flyer that can be discussed during interviews or provided to sourced candidates, and even creating videos with employee testimonials about the family-friendly working environment.

How can businesses work with childcare providers and community organizations to create a more robust and accessible network of childcare services?

In certain areas, childcare services may be facing an issue with finding available space to expand their services. Particularly if companies have the available space, it may be a good idea to talk with local childcare providers about leasing space from their establishment or even partnering with the provider to use the space for a company-sponsored childcare service exclusive to the company’s employees. While this may include additional efforts and updates to ensure the facility meets safety standards as well as licensing needs, not only could this potentially provide an additional revenue source for the company, but it also could provide a great benefit for your employees by providing local and convenient childcare.

How can businesses ensure that their childcare offerings are inclusive and address the needs of diverse families, including single-parent households and families with children with special needs?

Businesses definitely need to be careful in their policies to not narrowly dictate what defines someone as one’s child by avoiding defining terms, such as “birth parent” or “son/daughter” or even defining the children’s ages to which the benefits or policies apply. Instead, businesses can use more inclusive terms, such as “parents and guardians” or “dependents”, and, if using language to limit the flexibility of the policy based on the dependents age, I would recommend at least sticking to “minor” dependents and including information within the language of the policy, as well as any related discussions, about making an exception for adult dependents with caretaker needs. Of course, benefits and policies may additionally be covered by ERISA or other state, federal, or local laws which may have specific guidelines for who can be covered or needs to be included, so businesses need to also be aware of any legal interactions.

How do businesses balance the costs of providing childcare benefits to employees with the need to maintain profitability and competitiveness?

For starters, businesses need to realize that benefit expenses often have a less obvious positive impact on profitability and competitiveness by improving employee engagement and retention as well as making any job openings more appealing to top talent applicants. The ideal solution would be implementing KPI measures on productivity, output, and employee engagement to monitor the program’s ROI and make adjustments based on those figures if there is not a positive impact. If benefit expenses are already high, it might also be a good idea for the business to conduct a benefit survey to better understand what programs are actually important and appealing to their employees so that the benefit program can be better curated to their employees’ specific needs. Additionally, the company may want to consider offering their benefits as a true cafeteria plan by providing flex credits that employees can apply to the benefits that appeal to them the most, which will help mitigate costs by ensuring the employer’s contribution is being applied to benefits that are the biggest priority for their employees.

How can businesses support their employees’ mental health and well-being through their childcare benefits and policies?

It is incredibly important for businesses to understand that a little bit of flexibility and compassion can go a long way toward supporting their employees’ mental health and well-being, which in turn will positively impact the employees’ engagement and loyalty to the company. Of course, companies do need to keep in mind both the needs of their employees and the needs of the business, and those two concepts can often conflict with each other. However, taking the time to really listen to your employees’ needs to understand what solutions or compromises are available can help shape a company culture that better supports both your employees and the business.

What are some of the latest trends and innovations in the childcare industry, and how can businesses stay up-to-date and ahead of the curve?

There is definitely an increase in health and safety concerns in childcare with a variety of highly contagious infections being spread among the attending children. Childcares are having to pay even more attention to CDC guidance, which can affect their policies of whether a parent needs to quickly leave to pick up their child or whether their child can even attend at all. Companies can better support their employees by being aware of these pressures on the childcare industry and keeping up with CDC guidance to provide flexibility and preparedness for sudden schedule disruptions that can result.

Additionally, many childcares are introducing apps for increased communication while the child is in care. These apps can go a long way in supporting work/life balance by easing a parent’s fears or stresses about issues that may be occurring or even helping the child and parent feel more connected during the workday. While all good things should be taken in moderation, and the employee should balance using the app with staying productive and on top of their responsibilities, employers would be wise to ease up on any restrictive personal communications policies as this could actually benefit the employer through better employee morale, productivity, and overall mental health.

How do businesses measure the ROI of their childcare benefits and policies, and what metrics should they be tracking?

As with any new process or expenditure, it is advantageous to track the return on investment to identify whether the change is actually beneficial to the company as a whole. To do this with any added benefits or flexibility added for working parents, companies should keep an eye on their employees’ measured productivity, output, and quality KPIs, making sure to compare measurements from before any added changes to those collected at various points after the implementation.  Additionally, if the company isn’t already utilizing employee engagement surveys, they should implement them well in advance of introducing the new programs or benefits so that there are at least a couple of sources of base data. Then they should continue to collect feedback for the same questions after implementing the new programs to identify any improvements. The survey should include pointed questions about the employees’ work/life balance perceptions as well as their perception of their individual productivity and ability to focus.

How can businesses advocate for more comprehensive and equitable childcare policies and funding at the local, state, and national levels?

Businesses and individuals should reach out to their elected officials at all levels and let them know their opinions and recommended solutions! The only way to make sure someone’s feedback matters is by sharing it with those that have the power to effect such changes.

If you have any questions or if you would like to speak with our HR Advisory Team, please call (833) CPA-BMSS or visit our website for more information.