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These companies are helping working parents navigate an impossible situation

Some employers are getting creative to keep parents—and especially moms—from dropping out of the workforce. But is it enough?

These companies are helping working parents navigate an impossible situation
[Photo: rawpixel; maciej326/Pixabay; Simone Hutsch, Alice Donovan Rouse/Unsplash; Ketut Subiyanto, Tatiana Syrikova/Pexels]

This story is part of Fast Company‘s Reinventing Education package. As millions of students begin school during a deadly pandemic and global recession, we’re highlighting the ongoing efforts to keep children safe in the classroom, educate them remotely, and help their parents manage a new second shift. Click here to read the whole series.

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After having three kids in a span of 18 months, Susannah Bradley had chosen to take a step back in her career and only work part time. When her twins started kindergarten last year, it seemed like the right time for her to jump into a full-time role again, so she accepted a job at a major tech company in Seattle. “I was thrilled about that because it felt like I made this seamless transition right back to where I wanted to be,” she says. “But then COVID happened, and the schools closed, and I was suddenly managing Zoom calls for three kids.”

Bradley found herself in a bind familiar to working parents all over the country. Her employer gave her the option of flexible hours, but that meant she would have to work an eight-hour shift after a full day of tending to her children’s remote learning needs. She quickly realized that wasn’t sustainable, coupled with the constraints of her husband’s demanding schedule. “My husband and I had agreed on this arrangement where I would be the primary parent,” she says. “Before COVID, his job involved a ton of international travel. But now he’s just on conference calls from six in the morning until 6 p.m. at the earliest. It just wasn’t possible for him to jump in and help with the remote learning, so it was all falling on me, and I essentially had two full-time jobs.”

The choice was clear, Bradley says, given her husband’s earnings far outstripped her own. “I was incredibly lucky to be in a position where I could walk away, but it also felt like a real personal tragedy because I would much rather be working,” she says. “I never wanted to be a 1950s housewife, and I feel like that’s kind of what I am now. A few years ago, I was at the White House interviewing the First Lady, and now I’m adjudicating battles between Pokémon players.”

Bradley’s new reality mirrors that of many working mothers, for whom the pandemic has meant putting their careers on hold or bowing out of the workforce altogether. With daycares and schools closed, many women have struggled to take care of their children while working full-time. Women in heterosexual relationships have long borne the brunt of childcare responsibilities, which now includes the parental chore du jour—overseeing distance learning or homeschooling. The pandemic has only exacerbated this disparity: Working mothers have reportedly cut back on their work hours four to five times more than fathers have. And as schools across the country opt for only remote learning or a hybrid model with staggered in-person instruction, there seems to be no end in sight. “Let me say the quiet part loud,” food blogger Deb Perelman wrote recently, “In the COVID-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.”

I never wanted to be a 1950s housewife, and I feel like that’s kind of what I am now.”

Susannah Bradley
All this comes after decades of substantial gains in the labor market: Between 1980 and 2018, women’s employment increased by 74%, while men’s employment only grew by 45%, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, by December 2019, the share of American women on payrolls actually exceeded 50%. Just a few months later, the coronavirus wiped out nearly 10 years of progress. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women lost more than 11 million jobs in the initial months of the pandemic—a loss that exceeded the gains made by women since the last recession. It is women of color who have suffered most from unemployment, as industries such as hospitality and childcare have shed jobs at a staggering rate: Even in July, the unemployment rates for Black and Latinx women remained as high as 13.5% and 14%, respectively.

Those who still have jobs have faced a series of impossible choices, leaving them with a tenuous grasp on employment. A third of women in the labor force—many of them women of color—were classified as essential workers, making them vulnerable to the coronavirus without adequate workplace safeguards. For the women fortunate enough to be able to work from home, a dearth of childcare support has forced them into an unsustainable balancing act.

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“We’re only beginning to really grasp the long-term effect that the pandemic—and really the policy failings—are having on women and families,” says Katherine Eyster, the director of strategic partnerships and policy initiatives at the National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit organization advocating for gender and racial equity in the workplace. “We know the infrastructure that is needed to support working parents and caregivers is going to be decimated by this time. Many women who are losing hours or being forced out of the workforce—whether they’re being laid off or for childcare—[are] not going to be able to walk back to new or equivalent roles. We’re already seeing and will continue to see fundamental rollbacks in women’s gains in the workforce—in earnings, promotions, and leadership.”

As working mothers scale back their careers and drop out of the labor force, the lasting effects on women could span the next decade, according to economist Betsey Stevenson. The fallout from the pandemic could stymie their earnings potential and career progression, and for women who leave the workforce during this time, reentry could prove even harder than usual.


More from Fast Company‘s “Reinventing Education” Series:


An exodus of women from the workforce could also be a major loss for employers and the economy. It would behoove companies to foster a work environment more hospitable to those parenting through a pandemic. Not all of them have obliged: Some, in fact, have penalized or fired working mothers who requested accommodations. But in the absence of meaningful policy changes and government aid, many companies—largely white-collar employers with deep pockets—recognize the onus is on them to help bridge the childcare gap and support working parents for the foreseeable future.

A plan for working caregivers 

In April, family benefits platform Cleo conducted a survey of its members, which captured the predicament that women such as Bradley found themselves in. “It was even more sobering than we had imagined,” says Cleo CEO Sarahjane Sacchetti. “One in five of our members were thinking of dropping out of the workforce.”

While many workplaces have embraced flexible hours in response to the coronavirus, that’s hardly a long-term fix. There’s no telling when schools will reopen fully, and the already fragile childcare industry—which only received $3.5 billion in aid through the CARES Act, less than the emergency relief awarded to Delta Airlines—is in free fall. Childcare centers that have reopened are sinking money into obtaining protective equipment and cleanings; enrollment is down, and just 18% of childcare providers expect to survive more than a year. Without a more sizable childcare bailout, working parents could have little to no support even after the pandemic comes to an end. (The House just passed two bills that would provide $50 billion in immediate funding to childcare centers, if the legislation gets through the Senate.)

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Recent research by the Society for Human Resource Management indicates that many employers are introducing flexible working hours and remote work—or considering doing so—to accommodate childcare needs. Some, such as Facebook, have also suspended their performance review process and promotion cycles. Since March, when its on-site childcare centers closed, Patagonia has extensively surveyed parents to find out what care they have and what they need. Patagonia also went one step beyond flexible hours: Depending on their childcare setup, employees were encouraged to shift to more asynchronous work—say, switching to long-term projects if their usual responsibilities were more time-sensitive. Patagonia even armed parents with activity calendars adapted from the childcare program and, when necessary, brought the program director into conversations about their workload.


Hear more about the private sector solutions to the crisis for working parents in a special Reinventing Education podcast mini series


One of the near-immediate solutions when the pandemic started was extending flexible leave to parents. At companies with up to 500 employees, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act secured 12 weeks of paid leave to parents with kids at home, which has proven to be an imperfect solution. Many working parents were unaware they even qualified for the benefit, while others have declined to use it due to concerns over job security. Still, some companies that were too large to qualify for government-sanctioned leave opted to offer a version of it: Microsoft matched the leave offered by the legislation, as did the 850-person company Contec, which manufactures infection control products.

What parents actually need

Now, a number of companies are finally starting to think about how to provide more sustained support to working parents through subsidies and other benefits. In May, Cleo launched the Invest in Parents pledge, backed by a coalition of tech companies that included Salesforce and Uber, to better support working parents during and after the coronavirus. “This concept came from the acknowledgment that employers have a vested interest,” Sacchetti says. “And as we build this product and do what we can, in our own little slice of the world, could we create a working group that could bring more attention and start to get more C-suites talking about this?”

One of the first steps was to bring together the companies that signed the pledge, so they could compare notes on policies and benefits. Most of them, Sacchetti says, were either considering new benefits or had already added them. Salesforce has expanded on its parental leave and backup childcare policies and told employees they can work from home until schools reopen properly. CloudFlare, another one of the pledge signatories, has relied on feedback from its robust employee resource group to figure out which benefits are most important to parents—online classes and tutoring for their children, for example, or more tangential offerings, such as meal delivery.

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Fringe, a benefits marketplace for employees, offers a spectrum of lifestyle benefits to employees, from Uber rides to Grubhub orders. Employees typically receive a monthly stipend that they can spend on any of the services Fringe includes. “When we talk to a lot of employers, they’re really coming at this with an open mind because they have no clue how to solve the problem,” says Fringe CEO Jordan Peace, noting that each family’s needs are different when it comes to schooling and childcare.

Peace was surprised to see that many parents were putting their funds toward restaurant delivery through Uber Eats and Grubhub, as well as grocery deliveries via Instacart. “What that tells me is the thing that universally parents need help with is those normal tasks of life—keeping the house clean, cooking the meals,” Peace says. “All the things that you would normally not worry about because you’re at the office and the kids are at school or at daycare.”

[Childcare] is a complete checkerboard across the U.S.”

Sarahjane Sacchetti, CEO of Cleo
Many employees prefer some kind of subsidy, according to Allison Robinson, the founder and CEO of the Mom Project, a digital marketplace and community for parents that works with companies such as Facebook and Bank of America to help them cater to parents and better retain female employees. (The Mom Project is also one of Cleo’s partners behind the Invest in Parents pledge.) “Our research told us more than anything, moms and dads were looking for financial assistance to help basically subsidize the cost,” Robinson says. “What we found was childcare is a very personal choice. Some would be elated to have childcare on-site where they work, but many parents want that choice.” Plus, many companies are just beginning to move beyond stopgap solutions to the childcare problem wrought by the pandemic. “I think we’re still very much in the experimental stage,” Robinson says.

The specificity of childcare and range of rates and vendors also explains why many larger employers, in particular, have been providing blanket stipends to employees. “[Childcare] is a complete checkerboard across the U.S.,” Sacchetti says, “so even if you’re just looking at a domestic population—not to mention international—there’s not like a SaaS product you can hit and say, ‘Turn it on for everyone.'” That’s compounded by the fact that every parent has a different comfort level and circumstance: Some are already sending their kids back to daycare, while others may not be comfortable with care outside the home just yet.

Amid this patchwork of childcare needs, Sacchetti believes a benefits platform is a more frictionless alternative for employees. Since the pandemic, Cleo has teamed up with on-demand childcare service UrbanSitter to launch Cleo Care, which connects parents with vetted childcare providers and additional workshops and coaching for children through age 12; Cleo Care also offers a concierge service to reduce the burden on parents. Last week, the company rolled out Cleo Marketplace, which pulls together a wide swath of potential benefits for families in one place, including partners such as UrbanSitter but also services for virtual tutoring and fertility testing.

Like Salesforce, some businesses are building on backup care subsidies—a perk already provided by tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. (Amazon has long been a holdout, though that has changed due to the coronavirus.) Many of them partner with Bright Horizons, which works with more than 1,200 companies and calls itself the largest provider of employer-sponsored childcare. Bright Horizons helps employers provide a range of services, including on-site care, but CEO Stephen Kramer says the most common is backup care, which has attracted more than 800 clients.

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“It’s a national solution that allows an employee—when they do have a breakdown in their traditional care arrangements—to be able to reach out to Bright Horizons,” Kramer says. “They can either have their child attend one of our centers or partner centers, or we send caregivers to the home.” Since the pandemic started, Bright Horizons has seen an uptick in the number of days allotted to employees, as well as interest from new employers. One of Bright Horizons’ clients is Bank of America, which has increased its backup care offering from 40 days to 50 days; between March and the end of July, the company committed to 1.2 million days of backup care for 20,000 employees.

The rise of on-site childcare?

But the holy grail of benefits for many employees, particularly those who have to return to offices, may be on-site childcare. It’s still a rare offering even among moneyed employers. Apple, for example, built a sprawling gym on its now unoccupied $5 billion campus but skipped the daycare center. But this benefit has been core to retaining female employees at companies such as Patagonia. Until March, the retail brand accommodated about 150 children across three on-site care centers through kindergarten. At its headquarters in Ventura, Patagonia also offered an after-school program for kindergarten to third graders.

Robinson believes that government subsidies could push employers to more widely adopt on-site care or sponsor childcare facilities nearby. “[Patagonia has] shown that they’ve basically been able to recoup all the costs, and they have nearly perfect retention of parents,” Robinson says. “I think today, outside of those most progressive companies, the legal risk and the cost and the complexity of offering this—the cons outweigh the pros. But I do think you will see more increased appetite to do so particularly as these subsidies gain momentum.”

Bright Horizons already runs on-site care for many organizations, operating more than 700 centers across the U.S. Historically, the employers most inclined to invest in on-site care have been in the healthcare industry and higher education, but Kramer says other industries have since taken the leap. Bright Horizons now operates centers at companies as diverse as Salesforce, ExxonMobil, and the Home Depot.

It was important for organizations such as the Broad Institute in Boston, which was doing crucial research on testing, to get back into the lab as the coronavirus spread. To provide childcare to employees, Kramer says, the Broad Institute took over a Bright Horizons community center that was going unused at the time. Other clients who already offer on-site care at their headquarters are looking into subsidizing access to Bright Horizons centers across the country, Kramer says, to help support employees who may be working remotely or at a different location.

Before the pandemic, Cisco already had on-site childcare centers in San Jose and at multiple international offices. About half of Cisco’s 40,000 U.S. employees are parents, and as of July 6, 35% of enrolled families have brought their kids back to the San Jose childcare centers—even though less than 5% of Cisco’s workforce is on campus right now. (The centers are open to hourly workers and contractors as well.) In response to employee concerns, as of this month Cisco’s childcare centers are welcoming kids up to the age of 12—albeit with tuition—who need support with distance learning. Through a new partnership with Bright Horizons, Cisco will also be subsidizing support for distance learning for students of all ages, as well as tutoring and group classes.

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Bright Horizons recently acquired Sitter City, an online platform for matching families and caregivers. Through the partnership, Bright Horizons is looking to help parents who are interested in sourcing caregivers and teachers to form microschools or pods—a solution that has swiftly grown popular among affluent parents and has already drawn the ire of those who worry it will deepen existing inequities in public education. But introducing it as an employer benefit, Kramer says, could be one way to level the playing field. “We’re really trying to take the socioeconomic piece out of it,” Kramer says. “Because we have great relationships with our employer clients, we are truly encouraging them to subsidize significantly these learning opportunities for their employees’ children.”

Another company working on expanding access to microschools is Seattle-based Weekdays, which connects parents interested in starting or joining neighborhood schools with vetted teachers. The catalyst for Weekdays was founder and CEO Shauna Causey’s own experience searching for childcare and preschool for her son. “I found myself on wait-lists when I had my first son, and I wasn’t getting off any of the wait-lists in my neighborhood,” she says. “I took myself out of the workforce for a year because I didn’t have great options and wasn’t in a place where I could afford a full-time nanny.”

But microschools don’t come cheap: Pricing for Weekday’s offerings can run anywhere from $90 a week to $550. In thinking through how to make the model more equitable, Causey has been exploring partnerships with school districts and businesses. “We’re in talks with about 20 businesses right now, all over the last four weeks,” Causey says. “And seven of those are Fortune 500.” Some companies are looking at on-site centers, while others are subsidizing neighborhood programs for employees; Weekdays is even starting a trial for virtual schooling with a company that has employees working out of 15 different countries.

For the last few months, a nonprofit coding school called Ada Developers Academy has been running an on-site childcare center powered by Weekdays. When the pandemic hit, Ada wanted to make sure childcare responsibilities wouldn’t stop parents from completing the program. Parents could bring their children into the Ada office, where they had access to care and could interact with other kids. For those who don’t want to commute or have concerns about exposure, Ada is working on offering Care.com credits and connecting parents with Weekdays pods in their neighborhood.

“As a small organization, we don’t have access to the big bargaining power for big corporate benefits,” says Ada CEO Lauren Sato. “So we knew we were going to have to get creative to support people.” Sato also felt it was central to the mission of the company, which seeks to get women into software development. “We want them to land at companies that can retain them,” Sato says. “So our other angle with this is to be a model and to show how it can be done. Amazon has an incredible amount of space; their real estate footprint in Seattle is massive. And with folks working from home more, there’s more available space. So my hope is that they see it is relatively easy to stand it up.”

The business case for policy

For all the accommodations employers are implementing—or could implement—in the workplace, supporting working mothers and parents across racial and economic lines still requires sweeping policy changes. “Unfortunately, because this is such a complex and unprecedented national crisis, many of the challenges demand national leadership and coordination to resolve,” Eyster says. As Ashley Fetters wrote recently in The Atlantic, a federal compassionate leave policy could enable parents to spend a few hours each day assisting their children with remote learning. Or schools could be reimagined as microschools with classes held outdoors and in other venues. Both solutions could mitigate the shortcomings of remote learning for students and reduce the burden on working parents; both would also require buy-in and financial backing from the federal government.

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Before the pandemic, some businesses had started to agitate for federal policies such as national paid leave and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. But Eyster says employers have rarely been as outspoken as they should be when it comes to policy. “One of the niche roles that we often play is to work with companies, particularly leading companies that have a demonstrated commitment to these issues, to actually endorse and engage in the policy process around issues like paid leave or pregnancy accommodations,” she says. “The voice these employers have is unparalleled. They have political and economic power; they’re job creators. There are all these ways in which elected officials just really listen to what they say.”

There’s this enduring American myth that what’s good for workers is bad for business and vice versa.”

Katherine Eyster, director of strategic partnerships and policy initiatives at the National Partnership for Women and Families
Eyster believes larger companies—particularly those that already have strong lobbying arms—should be pushing the White House and Congress more on issues such as paid leave, unemployment insurance, and funding for the childcare industry. “There’s this enduring American myth that what’s good for workers is bad for business and vice versa,” Eyster says. “And that is so clearly turned on its head right now. But I think that myth remains, and there’s reluctance for employers to show up for the public good in policy.” Eyster points out that while many companies are, in fact, innovating and addressing these shortcomings through more expansive benefits packages and childcare subsidies, they’re likely doing it at a greater cost.

“We’re talking about such fundamental things as caregiving and child care,” she says. “These are not controversial [things]. If companies and industry groups got together and said, ‘Listen, every expert has said we need $50 billion for childcare. Give us $50 billion for childcare,’ I think we would be seeing a really interesting change in the conversation.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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