Social and economic inequalities are at the forefront (again) as the school year starts

Kimberly Jones People Experience and Markets Leader, PwC US

When it comes to social, racial and economic inequality, we in the U.S. rank miserably low among developed nations — the same is true for our national governmental policies that enable parents to thrive. This is not news to anyone, but as each of these stressors is further exacerbated at scale by COVID-19, it’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore. It will take deliberate action to stem the tide. As a Black working mother who has been single for nearly all of my 19 year old daughter’s life, I say emphatically that we need to do more as a society. And, as a business community, we need to do much more.

We’ve seen challenges play out before our eyes for working parents since March of this year, as schools shifted quickly to virtual learning models. This new school year presents a very real risk for organizations who employ these parents — especially those organizations actively working to help foster inclusion and improve diversity within their workforces. Data consistently shows us that women generally bear the majority of household responsibilities and caregiving. And as these data are updated for recent experiences in the current climate, we see nothing is changing. While it may have been “accepted” for a lockdown period that was hoped or even believed to be finite in the near term, this is an issue that can be expected to further escalate as the virus spread has yet to be contained, and many schools remain largely virtual and many childcare centers remain closed.

For women of color, these challenges are compounded by the facts: as a higher risk population due to underlying health conditions and frequently working in jobs considered “essential” with direct contact with the public, we experience higher infection rates of COVID-19. Also, we are less likely to have wealth and savings to fall back on, and as the primary or sole breadwinner in our families, we shoulder more of the responsibility to keep our families economically stable. The deck feels stacked against us. It’s time for businesses, communities, and individuals to come together to help find real solutions to help mitigate the obstacles — financial, mental health, social, and otherwise.

As the People Experience Leader at PwC, it is my responsibility to look out for all our employees and find ways to help enhance their experience at work — which includes juggling work and home lives. At the beginning of the pandemic, our U.S. chair and senior partner, Tim Ryan said we will do everything to protect our people and their jobs. That extends to helping our people who face the current extraordinary challenges of parenting while working, and perhaps even facing the difficult decision of possibly having to leave the workforce.

Data tells us that 27% of parents are expected to leave the workforce due to COVID-19, which is up from 6% just a few months ago. No one should have to choose between their children and the financial stability they earn and deserve through their work. Both should be able to co-exist, even when that means stakeholders may need to give and take with empathy and flexibility. And, to be clear, it’s to an organization's benefit when work and life co-exist for employees. When individuals have bandwidth to work and engage with their families, to commit to mental health and well-being, our research shows improved team collaboration, relationships with clients, and performance. It’s critical that we work to help keep these employees — the majority of whom are women — who are under extraordinary pressure to parent while working.

This starts by listening to employees to really understand the kinds of resources and benefits they need. Each person is dealing with their own unique situation. Here are the top four things working parents are asking for right now:

1)     More work+life flexibility

I believe most corporate leaders would agree that it’s better to retain high performers, even if that means having less than 100% of their full-time schedule. And, in a job market where there is a clear skills shortage and top talent is more valuable than ever, offering flexible job arrangements can be a smart investment. PwC has long offered a number of flexible work options to help our people better manage work and home responsibilities, but we realized that given the current environment, we needed to expand upon our existing offerings. For example, we’ve just introduced the ability for our employees to take a leave of absence for up to six months at 20% pay; we’re offering enhanced support for our people working reduced schedules and their teams; we’re also giving some roles the option to participate in job sharing; and for those who cannot accommodate reduced pay in their families right now, we are respecting protected time during the work day for employees to tend to needs outside of work. As always, we continue to reinforce our culture of everyday flexibility; for most of our people, a reduced schedule isn’t the thing they’re asking for — it’s simply to have breathing room to juggle their responsibilities, especially when those include mini “coworkers” (their children) who have parenting and schooling needs in the middle of the traditional work day.

We know there isn’t an easy or “one size fits all” solution. Our goal is to offer an array of options to help support each person so that they can manage professional and personal commitments in the way that works best for them.

2)     Help with Childcare

Many schools and childcare centers remain closed or are operating under new limitations as a result of the pandemic, requiring parents to find alternative sources of care. Whether this means taking more time in the morning because childcare centers are opening later, or finding emergency assistance when a childcare center closes abruptly, working parents need options — and employers should recognize that these needs can weigh very heavily on their employees. That’s why, in addition to helping working parents block and protect time during the work day, PwC also doubled its back-up care reimbursement amount. This $2,000 benefit can be used to pay a family member, friend, or other caregiver to help with childcare when other options are unavailable. PwC is also offering discounts on nanny placements and expanding the current 12 days of in-center back-up care to also include in-home care.

3)     Assistance with Home Schooling

Many of those with school-aged children are taking on the new responsibility of educator, in addition to their day-to-day professional job duties, usually without any education or experience in the field (unless March to June 2020 homeschooling counts!). Parents acutely feel the challenges of this dual role, and have been vocal about the need to find solutions so that their children don’t fall behind in school. As mentioned previously, we offer our everyday flexibility, the  more formal flexibility options and strong emphasis on respecting protected time, which provides our working parents time to tend to these needs during the work day.  In addition to this, we are also offering discounts on tuition programs, tutoring, and even college admissions counseling.

4)     Time to focus on wellbeing

The current environment can be a lot to absorb, and one way to help with that is by offering mental health support resources. PwC does this for employees and their families at no cost. This includes access to 1-1 virtual coaching, community support groups, free meditation and wellbeing apps, trauma counseling and a variety of curated online resources.

As a business community, we should support our people through these tough circumstances where we can. We should work together to better understand the challenges that they are facing and how we can help them. And we cannot lose sight of the reality that these issues disproportionately impact women and especially women of color.  So supporting individuals through a holistic suite of benefits and flexible work offerings is not simply a smart business decision or the right thing to do — it’s also helping to address some of the systemic societal issues as we work to combat inequality and help build a truly inclusive future.

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Kimberly Jones

Kimberly Jones

People Experience and Markets Leader, PwC US

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