The welcome news that Boston is reopening for business landed with a thud last week for many working parents on the city payroll. All employees are due back at their desks full time in six weeks. Managers must report for duty in two, three, or four weeks, depending on their role.
The city’s sudden announcement, which offered no flexibility for those in need of child care and came a full two months before it was expected, sent some parents into a panic. Two mothers of pandemic babies who have never been enrolled in day care were so distressed, they’re considering quitting their jobs.
“Not that we’re all surprised we have to go back to the office,” one of them told the Globe. “It’s just that the expectation is so sudden, so inflexible, and with disregard to the fact that people have been working really hard to upkeep the city and balance our personal lives all along. It just seems incredibly disrespectful.”
The move is being made by the city’s first female mayor, Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who previously worked as an advocate for early education and child care at Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Janey, who was City Council president before she was elevated by the departure of former mayor Martin J. Walsh, is now running for mayor in a field dominated by female candidates who are highly sensitive to the concerns of working mothers.
“We all had hopes,” that same mother said, that Janey would reject her staff’s proposed return-to-work timeline or offer a more flexible plan. Instead, Janey signed off on it. “There was a huge opportunity missed to be proactive about this.”
Janey, in a statement to the Globe, acknowledged the complaints but did not change course.
“I understand the pandemic compounds the challenges caregivers have always faced,” her statement said. “As a single mom, I know the struggle of working families and am truly grateful for the dedicated service of every City of Boston employee as we work to reopen our city and restore in-person services to our residents.”
Across the country, the exodus of women from the workforce has been a theme of the pandemic economy, in large part due to the long-term closure of schools and child care centers. For more than a year, advocates and politicians have been saying that faltering child care infrastructure could hamper the economy even when businesses try to reopen.
But in an interview about the return-to-work plans, Boston Chief Financial Officer Justin Sterritt suggested city employees would adapt.
“Child care was an issue before COVID, and it will continue to be one,” he said.
The city has 18,000 employees, many of whom had to work in person all through the pandemic — even as they navigated their own child care challenges, Sterritt said. He suggested it wouldn’t be fair to them if the city offered a gradual return to employees who have been working entirely from home, who make up a minority of the city’s workforce.
Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to end COVID restrictions last week and lift the state of emergency June 15 came two months sooner than expected, and the city is trying to keep pace. City Hall is due to reopen to the public June 7, but only four days a week and by appointment until July 12.
“As Boston comes back to life, there’s just a certain demand for services,” Sterritt said.
“We have a responsibility to provide services,” Sterritt added. “All of those things that the community and residents and visitors are going to demand need to be provided on a much quicker time frame than we were expecting.”
It’s not clear, though, if child care providers are ready to meet the demand for their services. In Metro Boston, which includes the city and several surrounding communities, only 550 of the 687 child care centers that were operating before the pandemic had reopened by the end of May, according to the state Department of Early Education and Care. Family child care providers operating out of homes dropped from 1,066 to 934, the state data found.
The child care industry was pummeled by the pandemic, as providers who were able to stay open had to reduce enrollments to meet health and safety standards, which were just lifted by state regulators. Two stimulus packages passed since December are sending a deluge of relief from Washington, but the funding has yet to reach local child care providers or boost the salaries of employees, who are fleeing the flagging industry for better-paying jobs.
Tammy Pust, a senior adviser for human resources in City Hall, said officials have begun reaching out to child care providers “to make sure they know our employees are coming back.”
Asked whether those centers have slots available for city employees, Pust said: “We haven’t heard anything specifically yet, because this is all so new.”
The child care center inside City Hall, run by the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, remains fully staffed and ready to reopen at full capacity, but it has a wait list for new families. One mother on it — who like others interviewed for this story asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions at work — said she has been waiting for more than a year. She’s also wait-listed at two child care centers closer to her neighborhood, and she’s been told a spot is unlikely to open up before fall. As a result, she said, she may have to quit her city job.
Her other option may be to take mostly unpaid leave. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act allowed parents to request up to 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act when their school or child care closed or was unavailable due to COVID-19 precautions. But it’s not clear if she’s eligible: The paperwork doesn’t address care for babies who have never been in child care.
Another city employee said the sudden announcement has upended summer plans for parents who would have needed to book summer camps, many of which have been operating at reduced capacity or on hybrid schedules.
“My staff is asking me if their kids can come in to work,” she said.
A fourth mother, a manager, said she had expected Janey to be more sensitive to the concerns of working parents.
“It surprises me, because a lot of city staff vote. And there’s a lot of discontent with this decision and I think it’s going to be a problem for her,” she said.
Several mayoral contenders quickly seized upon Janey’s announcement to suggest they would do better by city employees.
“We needed a reopening plan that took into account the realities of working families. Not this,” tweeted Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, whose campaign platform calls for universal child care from birth to age 5.
Mayoral candidate John Barros, who was the city’s chief of economic development under Walsh and who is calling for increased investment in early education, noted that state government and some large employers are reopening with more flexibility or hybrid schedules. “Acting Mayor Janey must pause her rigid and abrupt return to work schedule, and make a sincere effort to solicit feedback from employees about their needs,” he said in a statement.
Councilor Andrea Campbell wrote on Twitter that city employees were on the front lines of this pandemic, and that, “To not provide any sort of flexibility around in-person return & childcare is wrong.”
After the return to work, Janey plans to launch a “future of work” task force to discuss what elements of the pandemic work era should remain going forward, Sterritt said. But that’s too late, said Councilor Michelle Wu, a mayoral candidate who has championed universal child care.
“Creating a ‘task force’ to discuss employees’ concerns after the fact misses the opportunity for the proactive, transformative leadership Boston needs throughout our recovery,” Wu said in a statement. “And it misses the mark for so many working families who have been working their hardest to serve this city through challenging times.”