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COVID-19 brings new meaning to bring your child to work day

Health and Benefits|Integrated Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Rachael McCann and Megan Sowa | April 16, 2020

Employers have an opportunity to support all employees, at various life stages, through caregiving benefits. This blog touches upon childcare.

Today’s global pandemic has reinforced the undeniable need for a supportive workplace culture. Prior to COVID-19, many employers had begun to research caregiving benefits and reexamine leave policies to support current and future employees. Within the last few weeks, caregiving support, especially in the form of backup or emergency care, has become the topic of conversation. Daycares and schools have shut down. Quarantines and “shelter in place” have been instituted. Nonessential businesses have closed their doors, and school playgrounds are empty as states have moved distance learning to our kitchen and dining room tables.

Many employees have transitioned to a work from home structure, carving out workspaces alongside their children’s play and school areas. For those employees required to go to a physical work location (many of whom are in health care, service or retail food and on the front lines of COVID-19), they simply cannot create their own bring your child(ren) to work day. This is an urgent, essential and pivotal need to address. 

Employers have the challenging task of business continuity, recognizing the reality of compliance with local, state and federal requirements in light of COVID-19, and how to best support their employees across the wellbeing spectrum. Caregiving has become a topic never so elevated as now. 

Earlier this year, and pre-COVID-19, the Willis Towers Watson Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey asked respondents about childcare benefits in place. Among our findings:

  • 34% of respondents indicated that they had a referral service in place in 2020, with an additional 2% planning to add it in 2021. 
  • 19% of employers responded having emergency or backup childcare services available to employees in 2020, with an expected 3% increase in 2021.
  • 6% indicated they had subsidized childcare either on or offsite, with 0% planning it for 2021.

Results varied fairly significantly by the size of the employer:

2020 Emerging Trends in Health Care graphic showing percentages of companies that provide childcare services
Provisions of childcare benefits - by employer

Source 2020 Willis towers Watson Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey, United States

With onsite facilities largely (or by the time this is read) having been closed due to COVID-19, backup care solutions have been one of the most asked about benefits by employers in March 2020. While it may seem like quickly implementing a caregiving solution inclusive of backup childcare support is the best way to meet an immediate need to support employees and encourage productivity at home or at the work location, employers should pause and consider the short- and long-term implications.

Employer considerations related to facility-based childcare options

  • Network of providers: Caregiving networks may only provide short-term or minimal relief as more people access for their care needs.
    • Increased short-term supply of providers (e.g., teachers, college students) may quickly dissipate with COVID-19 exposure and illness
    • Providers may not be willing to go into homes or facilities given health and safety concerns
  • Closures: Whether mandated by a state or voluntarily closed, childcare centers have and will continue to close quickly. The exception is generally for health care employers or first responders.
    • For nonessential employers – childcare options may not be accessible as states require all available providers to serve children of essential workers
    • Essential employers – keep in mind:
        • In some states, during a state of emergency, childcare services may be provided by the state for free
        • Facilities that remain open are challenged to maintain a safe environment
        • Cost structure and contracting options could be different while we are in the current COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., for pop-up facilities)
        • Number of children available within the site will be limited
        • Certain occupations will pose a greater risk of COVID-19 exposure among the families and caregivers
        • Are employees charged anything (or a nominal cost) to use the childcare provided (during pandemic)?

Employer considerations for backup childcare options

  • If there is a backup childcare option available today:
    • How are they meeting health and safety needs?
    • Can backup care benefits be expanded?
    • What options are available after the backup visits are exhausted?
  • If there is not a backup childcare option available today:
    • Who are the vendors? How do I vet options, and how quickly can I implement a benefit?
    • Will they have the supply to meet the demand and meet heath and safety needs?
    • How flexible are the options to meet COVID-19 needs?

Employee considerations when child/backup care is absolutely needed

Where possible, if employees can work from home with their children, they should! State resources should also be explored first. If caregiving solutions are needed for essential employees, including health care workers and others at the front lines of the pandemic, things to consider and ask care vendors include:

  • What precautions are being taken to ensure the safety of children and families?
    Examples of acceptable measures include:
    • Keeping siblings in the same room even if they are different ages
    • Not allowing parents to enter the building; children are dropped off at the door
    • Health and hygiene practices, including frequent hand washing and wipe downs
    • If a household member experiences symptoms, or has returned from a Level 3 area as designated by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), family must remain out of the center for 14 days and may not use backup day care
  • What precautions are being taken to protect caregiving staff?

What else can employers do during the COVID-19 pandemic besides offering a backup care solution?

Caregiving solutions are an important benefit to add to an employer’s wellbeing strategy. However, employers should be cautious not to rush into implementing such a solution. Care networks may not be able to keep up with the increased demand during COVID-19, and the inherent risks of these solutions are magnified. Employers should first examine their leave policies and other cultural changes that may provide relief to employees during COVID-19.

There is a need for caregiving across the spectrum; rushing to implement a solution may unintentionally neglect certain needs.

Employers could consider:

  • Flexible schedules and a modified work environment. Offer modified hours, consider job sharing and, most importantly, a working environment supportive of physical distancing (often called social distancing) efforts to keep employees safe on the job and flatten the curve.
  • Financial support
    • Child and/or elder care subsidy. Employers can provide a pre-tax subsidy to an employee's Section 129 Dependant Care Flexible Spending Account, but the total contributions by the employer and the employee through salary deductions cannot exceed the IRS limit of $5,000.
    • Reimbursement via IRS section 139. With the national emergency part of the Stafford Act invoked, there may now be a number of payments or reimbursements employers can provide employees on a tax-free basis. This may be a means for employers to provide financial support to employees in offsetting some of their childcare needs (given most if not all facilities will be closed unless related to providing services to essential employees). Companies should understand compliance considerations with counsel prior to exploring further.
  • Time off
    • Paid time off (PTO) donation. Under the Internal Revenue Code, this will be income. Employers can consider paying the additional income and FICA tax on behalf of the employee by grossing up pay.
    • Medical leave-sharing program. To qualify for favorable tax treatment, the medical emergency leave-sharing plan must be in writing and provide that (i) any employee with a medical condition (or a family member with a medical condition) that requires a prolonged absence of the employee from work and results in a substantial loss of income and (ii) the recipient employee is required to exhaust all other forms of paid leave (e.g., PTO, sick leave) before using the leave bank.
    • Caregiving leave. Earlier this year, 19% of employers responded that they had paid caregiving leave in place specifically to care for one’s child (outside of paternity/bonding leave) in 2020, increasing by 4% in 2021 (offering a median of 3.6 weeks). Employers have quickly moved to evaluate given COVID-19 and the unexpected childcare needs it brings.
      • There is an undeniable need for caregiving across the spectrum (from childcare to eldercare and everything in between); rushing to implement a solution that only covers one end of the spectrum, such as backup childcare, may leave gaps and unintentionally neglect certain working caregiver needs.
  • Communicate and make easily accessible resources available. To support emotional wellbeing, this could include the following:
    • Telehealth and telebehavioral resources – reminding employees that virtual care should be a primary means of contacting health professionals at this time unless there is a life-threatening emergency
    • Employee assistance programs (EAPs) and the broad array of resources available – keeping in mind that dependents, both young and old, may also be struggling to balance stress, uncertainty and unprecedented changes to their daily routines and lives
    • Mindfulness or stress-reducing programs and coaching
    • Free apps and resources available online to support mental health, remote learning, physical activity, and the like.
  • Get creative. Employers are beginning to work together to find solutions for their employees who may need to be out of work during the pandemic, using each other and community support. When it comes to caregiving, let’s think outside the box! Of course, employers should ensure that any creative ideas are safe and approved by legal counsel prior to implementation.

There is no easy or perfect solution to solving the dire need for caregiving solutions to support those working through the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health should be our top priority and to the extent employers are able to offer flexible work schedules and generous leave, this can go a long way to maintaining a heathy and productive workforce.

Compassion, showing vulnerability, empathy, support, kindness and flexibility are key principles employers should adopt to help guide us all through this unprecedented time. Now, more than ever, employers have a chance to show their employees how valuable they are. Make employees feel safe and appreciated. We are all in this together.

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