School and office closures are a logistical nightmare for working parents

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Last weekend, Jannell Nolan woke up to dozens of texts: Elk Grove Unified School District had announced its decision to close all of its 67 Sacramento County schools in California for the next week after a student tested positive for coronavirus.

That sent all four of her kids — two elementary schoolers, a middle schooler and a high schooler — home for the foreseeable future and left her doing full-time childcare. Nolan works for the district, so she's staying home while her husband is working at a nearby Costco Wholesale.

“My kids have playdates planned for the rest of the week,” she said. “I’m not going to keep them locked up all week, I’ll lose my mind.”

It's not ideal, but at least the family has one parent who won’t have to negotiate work and childcare schedules.

In the U.S., having a stay-at-home parent is a luxury that’s proving even more beneficial as schools shutdown and offices send employees home. A majority of American mothers with children younger than 18 are employed and in more than 60% of married couples, both parents work, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With relatively little parental leave, fewer sick days and rigid schedules, working parents in the U.S. have a lot to juggle even when school is in session and everyone is healthy.

Coronavirus is adding new complications for that already stretched-thin demographic. Parents are scrambling to find childcare or figuring out how to be productive at home with kids around. Others are making tough choices between a paycheck and their families’ needs. Anxieties are even creeping up in places where the virus has not yet disrupted daily life.

“People are more stressed around the logistics than the actual disease,” said Elizabeth Gulliver, a mother of one and co-founder of Kunik, a membership-based community for working parents.

Alexa Mareschal, a Salt Lake City-based attorney, said she has “no idea” what she and her husband, who also has a full time job renovating homes, would do if her kids’ daycare is closed because of the virus. She finds it nearly impossible to be productive when working at home with her toddlers. “It’s kind of like trying to wrangle cats,” she said.

If widespread childcare and school closures come to Utah, Mareschal said she and her colleagues have discussed setting up a makeshift daycare for everyone’s kids, where the oldest ones would watch the younger ones. Other than that, she has no plan. “I’ll fly in my mom, I guess?” she said.

Like Mareschal, many working parents not yet affected by school or office closures are worrying about the feasibility of family quarantines. “The idea of being cooped up in my house trying to work with my kids running around for two weeks is not making me happy,” said Rachel Cherkis, a marketing manager for EY and mother of two, who already works remotely in the Miami area full-time. “There’s definitely not enough sound-proofing in my house.”

Brooklyn-based lawyer Colleen Carey Gulliver and her banker husband have started having conversations about what they’ll do if their three-year-old’s school closes. They may have to alternate days off work to watch their toddler. In the case that they both end up quarantined at home, she “might have to rely on TV more than you would like to get some actual time alone.”

In a way, these anxieties are for the privileged: Only 29% of the American workforce can do their jobs from home. To quarantine, most workers would have to take time off and many would forgo pay. Mendy Hughes, a single mother of four, has been working at a Walmart in Malvern, Arkansas, for the past decade and now makes a little more than $11 an hour. Not only is the 45-year-old cashier concerned about getting sick with the virus herself, she’s worried about what she’ll have to do if her kids, the youngest of whom is 10, had to stay home from school.

“I don’t know what I would do if they had to be on extended leave,” said Hughes, who is also a member of the Walmart watchdog organization United for Respect. “I’m a single parent so I really can’t afford to miss work.”

The U.S. is one of the only industrialized countries without federal paid sick leave. In light of the pandemic, President Donald Trump is expected to sign an order that would give some to hourly workers. Walmart this week also tweaked its own policy and now offers up to two weeks pay to employees who contract the virus or those who have to quarantine. These programs don’t necessarily cover the illness of a child or school closures.

No matter the situation, much of the care-taking and household burdens would likely fall to women, further exacerbating gender inequality. A 2017 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that working mothers are more likely to take care of sick kids than working fathers. Among mothers surveyed, about 40% said they’re the ones who take care of a sick child, compared to 10% of fathers surveyed. Women with young children also do twice as much childcare as men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They also do more cooking, cleaning, and laundry. This all contributes to the so-called “motherhood penalty,” which accounts for the bulk of the gender pay gap.

There may, however, be long-term benefits to this experiment, Gulliver, the Kunik co-founder said. She’s hopeful that this experience will change some of the harmful stereotypes around working parents that tend to hurt women.

“If you were not visibly pregnant at the office for all nine months of your pregnancy, a lot of people don’t even know that you’re a parent,” Gulliver said, explaining that’s the case for fathers, adoptive parents and step parents, among others. “Being forced to work from home and having kids pop up in the back of screens is going to show that you don’t necessarily need to hide that you have a kid.” This visibility could push employers to support the needs of employees with children.

Still employers can’t fix everything. Marketing manager Cherkis, who already telecommutes full time, said that despite the fact that her husband is the stay-at-home parent to their two kids, some things still fall to her.

“At the end of the day I’m mom, and sick kids want to be with mom,” Cherkis said. “That’s the truth of it."

Bloomberg News