As schools return for the fall, COVID-19 continues to create challenges for employees and employers alike. Many districts have moved their curriculum to a virtual setting, while others are offering hybrid models. Even in-person classes are no guarantee that an employee will be able to work as scheduled. All it takes is one outbreak and in-person classes will be suspended unexpectedly. It is inevitable that employees will need assistance juggling the increased demands on their time.
The federally funded Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provides employees with paid time off offered by the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA) and Expanded Family Medical Leave Act (EFMLA) which could be used to supplement time away from work due to childcare issues resulting from COVID-19-related school or daycare closures. However, these hours are only available if the employer has less than 500 employees AND the employer has not exempted themselves from offering FFCRA leave. This last part is significant to physicians because under the current FFCRA legislation and subsequent Department of Labor guidance, health care employers can choose to exempt themselves from FFCRA compliance. Which means, employees with school-aged children may find themselves without a safety net to assist with wage continuation or job protection outside of existing employer benefit programs like PTO, vacation and/or sick banks.
This has caused health care employers to weigh the pros and cons of FFCRA leave very carefully. The labor pool is not very deep right now given increased unemployment compensation and peoples’ general anxiety around COVID-19 exposure in the workplace. Current staff who feel forced to choose between work and their children’s education due to inflexible leave programs will not be easily replaced. For that reason, employers are well-advised to assist with resources that can aid employees in their decision-making process. To begin, survey your staff to learn what the current needs are so you can predict potential impact to work schedules and staffing needs. If you have multiple team members that are struggling with childcare/school closures, it is time to get creative. FFCRA is one solution, but consider assembling a list of alternative options available in your community and using this to facilitate discussion among affected team members. Employees can share their plans with others who are in a similar situation and employers can provide additional ideas that may be of interest, ie: Facebook groups for schools in the area where learning pods are being formed, summer camps that are retooling their offerings to provide a place for online learning, names of tutors and/or licensed teachers in the area who are willing to assist with in-home learning, employer-funded childcare subsidies to offset increased financial burdens or employer contracted arrangements with a childcare/learning center that would offer discounted rates to employees in need.
These are just a few of the many solutions parents and employers are considering to minimize the disruption that COVID is likely to cause in the workplace this fall. While it is not typical for an employer to be so involved in employee childcare decisions, these are times are anything but typical. Practices who do their homework to offer flexibility and choice will weather this storm much better than those who draw a hard line and place the burden of nontraditional school arrangements solely on the shoulders of their staff. Choose wisely. The effort employers put in now will pay dividends when it’s time to overcome the next COVID-19 hurdle in the workplace.
By Jodi Schafer, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, HRM Services