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Chicago, the nation’s third largest school district, reversed course and said it would begin the academic year remotely in September.  This shift leaves New York City as one of the only major school systems still planning to offer in-person classes this fall.  Like the spring school shutdown, continued remote learning presents many challenges for working parents.  Many wonder how they can put in full workdays without sacrificing their child’s education, job performance, and sanity.

Rather than ignoring the challenges for employees with school-aged children, employers can proactively act to help their parent employees and mitigate their own legal risks.  Employers are facing employment lawsuits related to the COVID-19 pandemic on a number of fronts and childcare challenges will certainly be an issue.  For example, one recently filed lawsuit by a California woman against her former employer alleges “she was fired because her young children were making noise during business calls while she was working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic.”

1. Understand the New Laws, Refresh Your Knowledge on the Old Ones

Since the pandemic, Congress rushed to enact employment protection laws to lessen the harm.  Because these laws contain new requirements, make sure HR and line managers are properly trained on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”).  Under the FFCRA, employers covered under the act need to provide a total of 12 weeks of partially paid leave to employees whose children’s day care or school has closed due to COVID-19.  Because FFCRA leave can be taken intermittently, businesses and employees could agree to a flexible schedule to ease employees’ childcare burdens.

Many state and local jurisdictions have passed their own COVID-19 specific leave laws that may apply to employers not covered by FFCRA or require additional leave on top of FFCRA.  Employers should ensure someone is monitoring these developments.  Additionally, a number of states and cities include “familial status” as a protected characteristic in their equal opportunity laws.  Check your state, city, and county for COVID-19 leave laws and protected classes.

2. Develop a Remote-Work Policy

Create a remote-work policy that establishes expectations and guidelines with as much notice as possible so employees can make arrangements (if necessary).  A well-conceived remote working policy will make expectations clearer and easier to engage in progressive discipline with an employee if expectations are not being met.  Ensure that managers and supervisors are trained to consistently apply the remote-work policy and to seek guidance from HR or the legal professionals when questions arise.

Kelley Drye recently covered the Department of Labor’s additional guidance on managing a remote workforce.

3. Allow Flexible Working Hours

During the traditional workday, parents may have to look after their children for a portion of that time.  However, they may be able to log on and work before their kids wake up in the morning or after they go to bed at night.  As long as you don’t need employees to be in mandatory meetings, you should consider letting them work flexible hours.

Kelley Drye recently covered the Department of Labor’s additional guidance on managing a remote workforce.

4. Engage in Ongoing Dialogue

Encourage employees to discuss these types of scheduling issues and work with employees to set expectations around availability.  As the pandemic continues, employees may feel increasingly isolated from work and their peers.  Therefore, special attention should be paid to maintaining good communication and giving employees a chance to express their concerns.  As needs change throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, HR should be in touch with working parents to ensure they have everything they require to stay productive.  Make sure HR and managers are having real conversations with employees, not just sharing platitudes or dictating policy.  Conversations lead to better understanding of unique situations and better solutions.

5. Care about your Employees’ Mental Health

If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), remind all employees how to access the benefit.  If you don’t have this benefit, consider adding it.  Between pandemic restrictions, a struggling economy, childcare issues, and health concerns, employees are facing considerable stress.  Now is the time for employers to educate employees about the resources that are available to them through their benefit plans and at no cost to the company.

6. Exercise Empathy

This is a difficult time for employees and extending empathy and grace is critical.  It’s also good business, leading to higher retention rates and increased productivity.  Setting aside the legal implications, a company viewed as inflexible and unaccommodating can lead to negative employee morale and breed resentment.  Supportive, flexible, reasonable, and accommodating workplaces will attract and retain top talent.  We will get through this and be better for having the experience.

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