Eight months into the pandemic, the child-care challenge brought about by COVID-19 remains a full-blown crisis. In many communities, schools are still not open for physical instruction full time, if at all. Day-care centers are fighting to survive as they navigate a thicket of well-intentioned public health regulations. And parents lucky enough to have kept their jobs through the economic downturn are struggling to care for their kids while keeping up with work responsibilities that were already more than enough to fill their days.
Now, as the nation heads toward a difficult winter, employers are experimenting with new ways to help parents manage the balancing act. At some companies, that means letting employees move closer to family members who can help with child care. Beam Therapeutics, a Cambridge life sciences firm, has begun reimbursing such relocated workers for the cost of commuting back to Boston for occasional in-person work. One employee, for instance, is flying back and forth from the Midwest on the company dime to continue lab work that can’t be done remotely.
"Because we are in an extraordinary time, it requires that extraordinary measure of saying, ‘What is money well spent?’ " says chief human resources officer Susan O’Connor. “And over and over our response is, ‘How is this helping the team member?’ We wouldn’t want someone to leave because there’s no alternative to making this work.”
Other workplaces are offering money to cover additional child-care costs, accommodating flexible schedules to help parents manage family needs, and creating virtual programming to occupy kids when they’re not doing schoolwork.
The Phia Group, which helps employers manage health care costs, is trying to make life better for parents by utilizing one of its major assets: real estate. The company moved into a massive office in Canton this spring, just as the pandemic took hold. And though people have begun returning to the office — with social distancing and infection-control protocols — the property is still mostly empty.
So when schools opened in September with a heavy reliance on remote learning, Phia saw an opportunity to help. The company is letting students in middle school and high school accompany their parents to work, where it’s quiet and the Internet is reliable. The handful of students who come in can even hunker down in unused private offices. Linda Pestana has been bringing her 17-year-old son, Daniel, to the office several days a week. It’s a vast improvement over their previous arrangement, she says, sharing a shaky Internet connection at their Stoughton home. Now, they make the 20-minute drive together in the morning, and Pestana runs her son home when his classes are over.
“There are too many distractions at home,” says Pestana, Phia’s human resources manager. “I know my son would do his schoolwork, but I’m sure there’s always going to be that temptation to jump on the Xbox or go upstairs and take a nap.”
Bringing guests into an office can be tricky in a pandemic. Public health and liability are a challenge, says Ron E. Peck, Phia’s executive vice president and general counsel. The company would have liked to offer the program to younger children, but due to concerns about whether it would have to follow day-care center regulations, it decided to limit access to kids 11 and over.
Setting up the program was a valuable experience, Peck says, as the company considers the legal and regulatory issues that will come with the resumption of regular office life. “I have faith that this pandemic will end and we’ll start to get to a sense of normalcy,” he says, “and I’m thinking that the work we’ve put in now will allow us to continue to open space and provide resources to our employees and their families beyond COVID-19.”
Employers have also found that offering programming targeted at kids can be helpful for workers. HubSpot, the Cambridge content marketing company, hired two teachers to create online courses and activities that students can participate in live via teleconference or watch later as recordings. The classes, held three or four times each week, are about 45 minutes long and cover topics including marine life, African animals, and outer space.
Alfresco Software, a Wellesley firm focused on content management, has encouraged kids to create online programs themselves. Children of employees have created classes on dance, baking, and American Sign Language, which have been popular with other workers' families.
At Sarepta Therapeutics in Cambridge, a biotech that develops genetic medicine for rare diseases, employees have access to a handful of options to help them find child care, including memberships to baby-sitting and tutoring services. But, as with Alfresco, Sarepta’s leaders realized that families there were eager to help take care of each other. So the company set up a directory of older and adult children who were looking for baby-sitting jobs, and families with younger kids or elderly members in need of care.
The program has provided a crucial connection between parents who need help and family members whose plans — for school or internships, for instance — have been disrupted by the pandemic. Sema Ariman, who leads a regulatory team at Sarepta, says the program has relieved some pressure on her family. She and her husband had been trying to balance child care and work with their two kids, Yasmeen, 7, and Yara, 5, learning from home. Sitters were hard to come by in their social circle because demand is so high, and Sarepta’s directory led them to a colleague’s teenage daughter. The parents and kids love her — she always brings crafts to make — and it took some of the stress out of bringing a new person into their home. “Here was someone internal, available in the company, and a direct contact,” Ariman says.
Joan Nickerson, Sarepta’s head of human resources, says the company will keep looking for ways to help employees adapt to the difficult circumstances they face. “Our employees really supported the extent we went to to make sure . . . they had what they need so they could continue the important work they do,” Nickerson says. “Being creative to help our employees goes a long way.”