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Coronavirus is purgatory for working parents

Working parents face a particular stress over Coronavirus: logistics. Here's what working parents are most concerned about, and what they're doing about it.

Tired of hearing about the zombie apocalypse known as Covid19, but also feel like you should probably read more about it? Join the club. Working parents face a very particular stress over Coronavirus.

I’m not going to touch the medical side, but there are many great resources out there to stay up to date (WHO & CDC). However, looking at China, Japan, South Korea and Italy we see a glimpse of what’s coming and it’s not pretty, especially for those of us who are nurturing a career while raising tiny humans. 

From playgrounds to drop-offs and group texts, the question on everyone’s mind is: “if my childcare closes, how am I supposed to work full time and take care of my kids?” The implications and unintended consequences of closures on American families would be massive. More than 60% of households in the US are two parent dual earners and about 25% of children live with one parent. Most parents have few, if any, options for one-off emergency childcare, let alone a plan in place for a prolonged period of time. 

So what are working parents thinking about when it comes to Coronavirus? I’ve asked a lot of them. In general, there is more stress about logistics than the actual illness. And for good reason. As anyone who has tried working from home with no childcare knows, it’s a bit like watching a baby learn to feed themselves; something might end up in their mouth, but it’s messy and inefficient. It’s definitely not a long term solution (but if you do end up working from home, here are some tips).

There are a lot of questions swirling around: What backup childcare will be available? How long would a school closing last? What if a caretaker has a sick family member? How do I prepare without alarming my kids? How much Disney+ can I stomach?

Many of these questions depend on the age of your kid(s), your financial position, and just how bad of an outbreak we’re talking about. The top concerns for working parents are:

  • Childcare coverage
  • The realities of working from home without childcare and its impact on our productivity
  • Work coverage: will you be forced to use sick days and/or unpaid off
  • How will this impact you financially?

Underlying these questions is a stark economic divide that cannot be ignored. The lack of sick pay in this country makes the situation even more stressful and challenging for hourly workers. What happens to working parents in the service industry for whom working from home is simply not feasible? Julie Kashen said it best:. “This is just going to exacerbate the problems that already exist but also make stark economic inequalities.”

So what can we do? I’d tell you to buy hand sanitizer but it’s all sold out and handwashing is better anyway. Absent that, here are a few steps you can take now:

  • Talk to your daycare / school / childcare provider: Is there a plan in place? Do they have any alternative arrangements for parents? How are they monitoring the situation? What are their policies with sick kids? Do they have a plan for e-learning? Get this information before you need it so you know what to expect. 
  • Talk to other parents: One parent I know has already put together a ‘movable feast’ of childcare. If schools close, a rotating mix of parents will take extra kids for a period of time to help out. He created an excel model to “optimize child and caretaker distribution” but he’s a data scientist, so I won’t hold the rest of us to that standard. The concept applies to all of us though. Are there people in your community who can help? Nothing bonds people together like a shared threat, you will be surprised how willing people are to help. 
  • Ask your manager / HR what the company plans are: What would cause them to tell people to work from home? What kind of warning will you have? Are conferences and travel being canceled? What about personal travel? Is your company already encouraging people to work from home and allowing sick employees to stay home – if the answer is no, push this conversation further, it’s critical. 
  • Examine your WFH set-up: You know what’s not sold out on Amazon? This lightweight, small computer stand and many other things that make working from home a bit more feasible: headphones, arts and crafts to keep little hands occupied, snacks, you get the idea. If you co-parent, can you both shift your work schedules so you can alternate between childcare and work? Potential upside: will companies learn that WFH is feasible for many of us and that non-traditional hours are just as productive, spurring further flexibility in the future? That’d be a nice silver lining. 

I’ve read several accounts of people quarantined with their kids. Most end with charming anecdotes about the imposed quality time spent with their kid. While I do appreciate that benefit,  the complicated realities of trying to work from home during this period are stress inducing to say the least. Luckily, as a working parent, you’re well used to things not going as planned and staying flexible. This is like that, but more. 

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