Six weeks into this giant exercise in social isolation, Dana LeWinter and her husband had settled into something of a groove.
Each night in their Melrose home, they talked through the next day’s schedule: who had to work when, and which one of them could mind their two young children. First thing in the morning, they set up schoolwork for the day. It hasn’t been ideal, LeWinter said. The kids are logging more screen time than their parents would prefer, and indulging in a few too many special treats. But with planning, and understanding employers, the family was managing.
Then came the news Tuesday that Massachusetts schools will remain closed for the remainder of the academic year. Day care centers won’t reopen until at least June 29, and summer camps are in doubt. For working parents, a return to the routine seems more distant than ever.
“This felt OK when this was just going to be a few weeks,” LeWinter said. “Now, not knowing there’s an end in sight? It’s pretty daunting.”
The prolonged school closures pose a challenge not just for parents, but for the growing push to “reopen the economy.” Any move towards getting people back into the office will have to reckon with the fact that many working parents will be caring for their children at home for months to come.
In Massachusetts, about three-quarters of children under age 12 — some 700,000 in all — lived in households where “all available parents” work, according to 2018 data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. For most, day care and school makes that viable, but not now. Relatives, babysitters, and other backup caregivers also are often off-limits. That has parents, and the companies that employ them, trying to figure out how to keep this juggling act of work and life at home going indefinitely.
“There’s no easy solution here,” said Jennifer Fraone, director of corporate partnerships at the Boston College Center for Work and Family. “It’s not like there’s a quick fix to this.”
A few large companies have launched efforts to help their employees fill the gap. Microsoft recently expanded its parental leave program to offer all parents — not just those with newborns — 12 weeks of paid leave. Wells Fargo is offering employees $100 a day to pay for child care through the end of the school year.
But, Fraone noted, most companies don’t have the resources for that kind of benefit, especially with the economy cratering. But they do need their employees to stay relatively productive, whether they’re sitting in the office or home with the kids.
For many, that means focusing on flexibility.
Boston tech firm LogMeIn is encouraging managers to check more frequently on the well-being of workers who are schooling children or caring for elderly relatives, as well as 20-somethings spending a lot more time with roommates than they bargained for. These days, said LogMeIn chief human resources officer Jo Deal, being a good boss may be as much about lending an ear as hitting a deadline.
“This is a time when managers and leaders need high emotional intelligence,” Deal said. “Not everybody has it as much naturally.”
The circumstances of the last six weeks, though, have humanized everyone a bit, said Kate Gulliver, global head of talent at Boston-based online retailer Wayfair and a mother of three young children. Video meetings of senior leadership are routinely interrupted by children, a reminder that even the bosses have lives beyond their jobs. That will bear remembering, she said, as companies contemplate how, and when, to bring people back to buildings.
“You have to model that behavior from the top,” said Gulliver, who sent an e-mail to Wayfair’s thousands of Massachusetts employees Wednesday morning stressing that no parents will be required to return to the office while schools and child care centers remain closed. “It’s going to look different. Kids are going to be in and out," she said. Our work structure is going to be different for a while. And that’s OK.”
That’s an important message, said Vinda Souza, head of communications at Bullhorn, a Boston-based software firm.
Working parents may fear they’ll fall behind professionally in the coming months, missing out on projects, or even new job opportunities, because they must stay home. Those without children may feel they’re expected to be available 24/7 since they don’t have parenting duties. The onus is on employers, said Souza, to treat all their workers with “grace and magnanimity," in a new working world that will only grow more challenging as the weeks turn into months.
“The longer this goes, the more untenable it will become,” said Souza, whose children are ages two and four. “Working parents already have that guilt on all sides. Then you add in the unknown factor of ‘What this will do to my career?’ ”
Then there’s the reality that for many people, working remotely isn’t an option. The state of Massachusetts for now is subsidizing day care for health care professionals and other essential workers, support that Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday is serving about 2,500 children a week. But that won’t do much for jobs in retail, transportation, and other industries that may not be “essential,” but can’t be done remotely. For those workers, Fraone said, it could come down to a choice between staying home with the kids or staying employed.
“A lot of parents are just worried about their financial stability. They don’t want to get laid off,” she said. “It’s a real problem.”
Eventually, Fraone said, social restrictions will loosen, and maybe relying on family members for help will become feasible again. Better testing for COVID-19 antibodies could give parents the confidence to hire homebound college students as babysitters. Schools will come back into session.
But that feels like a long way off to Joanna Morlot.
Head of marketing at CBT, an architecture firm, Morlot has been home since mid-March with a six-year-old, a three-year-old, and her husband, a high school teacher with online duties of his own. Her company has been supportive, Morlot said, hosting regular check-ins where people can just catch up. A frequent topic is dealing with this weird new work-life balance, a reminder that everyone is more or less in the same predicament.
Tuesday’s cancellation of the remaining school year wasn’t exactly a surprise, Morlot said. But it does mean the three-ring circus that is her home life will continue indefinitely.
“It has required an incredible amount of agility as parents and professionals and everything. Now we’re looking at another two months, at least,” she said. “But we’ll figure it out."