I’m a CEO, and I’m giving parents paid leave to cover for school closures

The pandemic has illuminated a hugely important issue for our country: paid time off (PTO). Who gets it, who doesn’t, how much is enough, and under what circumstances. And it’s clear we have a lot of work to do to shore up our support systems. 

Let me first acknowledge that, in the past 21 months, some progress has been made on that front. According to data from McKinsey & Co. and Mercer, in March 2020, millions of workers had no paid sick time, or lacked enough paid sick time to cover severe illness. Many large employers, in response, expanded their paid sick time and leave to meet the demands of the pandemic. But that hasn’t been enough. Kathryn Dill perfectly summed up the still-clear dividing line between the haves and have-nots for the Wall Street Journal:

While many workers who already enjoyed paid leave now have ever-greater benefits, many more low-wage, part-time and hourly workers, as well as those employed by small businesses, still lack any paid leave and sick time, deepening disparities between these workers.

Those disparities are immense and complex enough on their own. But I’m here to talk about another widening gap in the paid time-off conundrum. It’s one that isn’t being addressed as swiftly or significantly as it needs to be, given the state of our workforce’s physical, mental, and emotional health. It’s the pressing need for additional paid time off for parents amid sweeping school closures and reversion to virtual classes. We are far past overdue for parents to get paid time off for childcare interruptions.

Early in the pandemic, my company InHerSight surveyed more than 1,300 working moms and discovered, unsurprisingly, that they were less productive, less satisfied, and doing more work than ever. If you think that’s changed amid record-high case counts, thousands of school closures, crunched back-up childcare options, and no approved vaccination for children under 5, you would be right. It’s probably gotten worse—and with lackluster, or unchanged, benefits that don’t support the mounting chaos at home.

In fact, this week, we asked 80 working moms with children under the age of 18 whether they feel they have sufficient paid time off to support their children through COVID-related childcare interruptions, and 64% said no. We also asked them whether their employer’s support for them as a working parent has changed at all as a result of the omicron variant, specifically. The results didn’t speak to the kind of presence of mind needed, given this wave’s serious impact on families:

  • 18% of respondents say employer support has gotten better
  • 46% of respondents say employer support has stayed the same
  • 33% of respondents say employer support has gotten worse

I’m the founder and CEO of a company that does important work accelerating progress toward global gender equality at work, but I’m also a parent attempting to steward my family through this crisis. Just keeping up with the influx of school communications, changing guidelines, and various COVID timelines has become a full-time job. 

If employers don’t act, and act fast, they are going to see another major outpouring of talent from our economy, as parents are forced to make the heart-wrenching decision of whether to prioritize their children or their livelihoods. Here’s what employers need to know:

Parents need PTO for school closures and childcare interruptions

To be clear, everyone should have sufficient paid time off, but parents are at a breaking point. Adam Grant wrote last April about languishing, a term used to describe the joyless, aimless sense of stagnation many were feeling as the pandemic dragged on. He explained how ​​the acute state of anguish many felt in the earliest, scariest days of the pandemic had given way to a chronic condition of languishing. But the truth is, many of us—especially parents of children who have health conditions or don’t have access to a vaccine—never left the anguish. Our brains have been on high alert for fight or flight for almost two years now. It’s taking a toll and manifesting in stats and buzzwords like “millions of women are dropping out of the workforce” and the Great Resignation.

Without paid leave for school closures, we’re also treading into Maslow’s most fundamental and critical foundation: physiological needs. If parents can’t work, they can’t get paid, and they can’t have food and shelter and the critical things needed to survive and provide for their families. 

Kudos to the employers who have expanded their leave policies, but we need to do more, especially for the low-wage, part-time, and hourly workers, and those employed by small businesses who are often left uncovered. And for the companies that are always coming to us asking how to compete for the best talent, a word of advice: If there was ever a time for unlimited PTO, surely it’s now.

Expand PTO and get more creative to support parents during this phase

Can you give a mask stipend to parents, so they can afford KN95 masks for their kids in school? As CEO, I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on masks in the last 12 months. Subsidized back-up childcare. Supported flexible work schedules. All of these things can supplement expanded paid leave, but they can’t replace it.

Train for and practice empathy and listening

There is no one-size-fits-all solution here. There is so much complexity to each of our individual circumstances, empathy and creative problem-solving are some of the most important tools we can use to support parents in the trenches.

And parents, if all else fails, here’s a great auto-response to put on your emails for now and the foreseeable future: “Due to COVID-related issues affecting my childcare coverage, my response will be delayed. Thanks for your patience.”

Ursula Mead is the CEO of InHerSight

Fast Company