Key and home workers struggling with childcare, poll reveals

Staff face difficulties juggling their roles and family during the coronavirus pandemic, with People Management’s latest survey finding this is a growing concern for firms

A growing number of employers are concerned about how to support employees taking on childcare responsibilities during the coronavirus outbreak, a survey of HR professionals has found.

To understand how HR teams have been adapting their response to the coronavirus outbreak, People Management and the CIPD have been polling employers over the last few weeks.

The third and latest survey, which polled more than 300 employers, found nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) were concerned about staff’s ability to balance home working with parenting commitments.

By contrast, the People Management and CIPD second coronavirus survey, conducted last month, found 52 per cent of respondents thought staff being unable to work because of school closures would be their main challenge.

However, despite this concern, more than half (52 per cent) of employers responding to the latest survey said they were encouraging parents to make up their full contractual hours at home but at different times to normal. Meanwhile, 41 per cent said parents were working their normal hours but at home.

More than a quarter (27 per cent) said parents would have to take their annual leave entitlement to look after children, a significant increase from the 8 per cent who said this when asked the same question as part of the second survey. The percentage of employers who said parents would have to take unpaid leave also increased – from 14 per cent to 24 per cent.

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Additionally, nearly one in five (18 per cent) respondents said most of their workforce was classified as key workers, and as a result business would continue as usual in light of school closures. Meanwhile, a similar number (19 per cent) reported having asked staff who were not classed as essential workers to still attend a place of work.

The findings come amid concerns that many key workers are being forced to take time off work as a result of struggling to access childcare, despite provisions in place to still allow the children of key workers to attend school.

Last month the government mandated schools and nurseries in England, Scotland and Wales shut to pupils until further notice as a direct response to the coronavirus outbreak, with exceptions for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. The list of key workers includes NHS staff, social workers and delivery drivers. 

But for many schools and nurseries, staying open for such small numbers of children has not been financially viable. The National Day Nurseries Association estimated that around half of nurseries have completely closed for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, with one nursery owner telling the BBC there was little incentive for some to stay open because of the costs of paying staff to look after only a handful of children.

There have also been concerns that some mothers have been told by employers that women were being furloughed while male colleagues were not. 

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, said parents and employers have had to adapt to school closures, but stressed employers and managers should not assume men faced fewer childcare responsibilities than women.

“[Employers must] be realistic and have open conversations about what work can be achieved with small children at home – acknowledging the added pressures of school work, keeping the whole family mentally and physically healthy, and ensuring everyone gets fed,” she said. “Importantly, this is gender neutral – all parents should play their part.” 

John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union, told People Management that many of the key workers he represented were being forced to decide between not going to work or leaving their children with potentially vulnerable relatives. The decision to leave a child with a grandparent was often “difficult and [should be] balanced with the coronavirus risks of children being with older people”.

While some employers have been proactive in offering flexible working patterns, many social workers had to make the tough decision between work and family responsibilities, he explained: “Private help is available for childcare but is costly and comes with the risks of sharing the virus.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said it had asked nurseries and other childcare providers to remain open, adding that the government had put a range of measures in place to support providers. These included “continuing to fund free entitlements even if children are not attending, a business rate holiday for private providers and the coronavirus job retention scheme to support workers”.