From child care stipends to flexible schedules, companies aim to help parents juggle remote learning and work again this fall

When the state issued its stay-at-home order in March, Gina LaMonica, 39, a partner with

When the state issued its stay-at-home order in March, Gina LaMonica, 39, a partner with Chicago law firm Perkins Coie, had just returned from a work trip.

Overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic turned her Park Ridge home into an office and a school as she and her husband juggled their careers and the care of their two young daughters. Worlds collided, work shifted to all hours of the day and night, and somehow, they made it to the summer, exhausted and fully employed.

“It was very difficult,” LaMonica said. “Those were long days.”

For working parents like LaMonica, the pending start of the school year, which brings the anxiety of new teachers, schedules and courses under even the best of circumstances, is looming as a major source of stress.

A growing list of companies are pushing office reopenings to 2021 and many school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, are nixing even a part-time return to the classroom, portending an ongoing work-life family mashup that threatens to derail both career and childhood development.

“It is not sustainable to monitor their schooling at the same time that you’re working full time,” said Cornelia Grumman, education director at the McCormick Foundation, which focuses on funding support for early childhood development programs.

With most child care centers closed during the pandemic — some perhaps permanently — companies are offering everything from nanny stipends to online activity clubs to keep employees’ kids engaged and parents productive. Flexible work schedules have become the new norm, as parents shift between their caregiver, math helper and rainmaker roles throughout the extended day.

Tech giant Google recently announced it is pushing back a return to the office until July 2021, in part to help parents plan for remote schooling in the fall and beyond. Uber is also giving corporate employees the option to work from home through June, along with a $500 stipend for home office equipment.

Chicago-area companies are grappling with the COVID-19 child care crisis, but it is a work in progress.

CDW, the Lincolnshire-based information technology products company, has about 4,200 employees in the Chicago area, the vast majority of whom are working from home.

About 300 employees continue to work at CDW’s distribution warehouse in Vernon Hills, but the adjacent [email protected] child care center run by Bright Horizons remains closed, leaving some working parents without a place to bring their children.

“Like other things, we’re still trying to figure out what the best plan is for that,” said Liz Connelly, chief human resources officer at CDW.

In June, CDW launched a virtual summer camp for employees’ children. The camp, staffed by CDW volunteers, features live events and on-demand videos guiding campers through cooking, sports, yoga, crafts and other activities.

More than 2,000 CDW family members are attending the virtual camp, which runs through August, Connelly said.

Brittney Hampton, 33, a sales manager assistant at CDW, shifted from a downtown office to her South Side home when the pandemic hit in March. She’s been working from home with her husband and two children — a 3 1/4 u00bd-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, who attended a magnet school remotely in the spring.

Hampton, whose husband has continued to work at his Chicago office during the pandemic, relied on her retired parents for in-home child care assistance. She said the CDW online camp has helped entertain her kids, but with her daughter expected to begin fifth grade on an e-learning schedule adopted by Chicago Public Schools, the fall promises to be complicated.

“It’s tough, especially when I have meetings,” said Hampton, who will be working from home through at least the end of the year. “They like to make little pop-ins and say hi to everyone on the meeting. But fortunately, everyone that I work with has similar circumstances and they just take it in stride.”

Closed child care centers like the one for CDW families may reflect a bigger problem as offices gradually bring back workers in the months ahead.

Illinois licenses about 10,000 child care centers. All of them were shut down by the state’s stay-at-home order in March, but some were allowed to resume operations with an emergency license to serve essential workers.

Last month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced $270 million in funding to help child care centers reopen, but it may not be enough. Fewer than 1 in 5 centers nationwide expect to survive longer than a year, according to a study released July 13 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

“The majority of early child care programs in Illinois operate as small businesses,” Grumman said. “You’re already seeing a lot of closures across the state of folks that just can’t make it work.”

Massachusetts-based Bright Horizons has 43 child care centers in Illinois. The company declined to say how many of them remain open.

The company offers a backup care service allowing businesses to provide employees with emergency child care at a subsidized rate — either at a center or in-home — when school closes or a nanny cancels. Demand for the in-home service has skyrocketed during the pandemic, said Kristen Raymaakers, a Bright Horizons spokeswoman.

With child care centers closed and parents wary of letting strangers in their homes, many companies have expanded the benefit so that employees can hire a relative or friend for in-home care and receive reimbursement, Raymaakers said.

In June, Fifth Third Bank began offering employees 30 days of subsidized child support, either in-home or at a care center, this year through Bright Horizons’ backup care program.

The Cincinnati-based bank, which has 186 branches and more than 3,000 employees in the Chicago area, hasn’t announced a return to the office yet. About 1,300 employees work at branches and another 300 in the bank’s suburban Rosemont headquarters, while the other 1,400 work remotely, bank spokesman Larry Magnesen said.

In July, Fifth Third “reloaded” yearly sick time for employees to their full 56 hours for the balance of 2020 and added five vacation days for 2021.

“People ended up using the vacation and sick days to stay home with their kids,” Magnesen said.

Jennifer Svendsen, 41, branch manager of Fifth Third Bank’s Fox Valley Villages branch in Aurora, has used personal days to care for her 10- and 8-year-old daughters.

She and her husband, a corporal with the DuPage County sheriff’s office, have been working at their respective offices throughout the pandemic. Svendsen enlisted her mother to help watch their daughters at their Montgomery home during remote schooling in the spring.

On Monday, Svendsen learned that Lakewood Creek Elementary School in Montgomery, where her kids are entering fifth and third grades, is starting Aug. 19 with a fully remote schedule. That means more studying around the kitchen table for two to three hours each evening, after the workday is done, a “really tough” second job, Svendsen said.

“I’m scrambling to figure out what I’m going to do,” Svendsen said. “I’m really disappointed. I was shooting for the in-person learning with as much protection as possible — masks and social distancing. But I don’t think school districts want the liability.”

A July survey of 700 parents conducted by Homes.com found 82% report they are unprepared to resume at-home learning if schools do not reopen. Nearly two-thirds of parents said they struggled with job issues because of the added responsibility of supervising their children’s learning.

Tami Simon, a human resources adviser at Segal, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, said there is no one-size-fits-all answer to solving the child care crisis for employees during COVID-19.

Condensed workweeks, flexible schedules and temporary shifts from full- to part-time — without adversely affecting career trajectory — are among the solutions employers are considering, along with job sharing, Simon said.

Companies are looking at upping child care subsidies, creating support groups for parents and facilitating parent pods, where families jointly hire a tutor and kids go from house to house for ad hoc classes, Simon said.

But with so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, she said flexibility should be the guiding principle for companies.

“The No. 1 thing employees value is flexibility — to be able to know they can deal with whatever comes their way and they’re not going to get in trouble by their employer,” Simon said.

Lana McKenna, 44, managing director for BMO Harris Commercial Bank and a veteran remote worker, believes organization can help parents handle the pandemic.

McKenna has divided her workdays between her Westmont home and the bank’s Chicago office since the birth of her first child in 2013. She and her husband, a suburban insurance executive, worked exclusively from home in the spring, while their two sons attended a private Downers Grove grade school remotely.

BMO provided up to 15 days of paid time off to all employees during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, to support family and child care. McKenna used some of that time at the onset of the pandemic to organize a tight schedule for her family on a color-coded calendar.

Items marked in red indicated someone needed “alone time” to complete a task. Also written into the calendar was “outside time,” a necessity for both kids and parents.

“There were times that it was raining outside, but no lightning or thunder, and we both had a conference call,” she said. “I said ‘put on your raincoat and rain boots and get outside and go make mud pies.’ Thank goodness we have two little boys and they were more than happy to oblige.”

McKenna is back to splitting time between home and her office and is planning to send their 5- and 6-year-old sons back to nearly full-time classroom learning this fall, an option the family chose over e-learning.

The decision was driven by a “risk-reward” analysis after a challenging spring under one roof, she said.

“I recognize I’m a much better banker than a teacher,” McKenna said. “I fully appreciate everything that our teachers are doing for our kids by taking on those two jobs.”

Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie has about 250 employees in its Chicago office. Most employees have been working from home since March and have the option to continue to do so through at least through the end of the year, said Jennifer Bluestein, chief talent officer at Perkins Coie.

To accommodate remote working during the pandemic, the firm doubled from 20 to 40 the number of days employees may use the backup care benefit through Bright Horizons, Bluestein said. The plan gives employees $100 a day to hire an in-home child care provider of their choice.

LaMonica, who specializes in white collar defense, and her husband Phil, a truck leasing executive, operated in shifts during the spring, alternating between work and overseeing the e-learning curriculum for their daughters, rising public school fourth and first graders.

This week, with a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Illinois, LaMonica decided to opt for more remote learning in the fall after consulting with a pediatric pulmonologist treating her younger daughter for respiratory issues.

She worries about everything from the loss of social interaction for her kids to keeping up with her work, but vows to “power through it” as they did in the spring.

“I try to keep myself from thinking if this is sustainable in the long term, because you can get overwhelmed,” LaMonica said. “But we’re all in the same boat and it’s going to be tough.”

[email protected]

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