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Initiative aims to put children at center of workplace policies as businesses reopen

Working parents’ unmet needs have become ever more apparent as the coronavirus pandemic has halted child care, forced many parents to work remotely, and presented health risks to others who work in environments with other people.

“The COVID crisis has put it out there for everyone that working parents and employers need family-friendly policies in order to make ‘work’ work,” said Emily Swartzlander, chief strategist of Family Forward NC, a nonprofit initiative that aims to improve parents’ workplace environments and children’s health by working directly with employers.

The average annual cost of center-based infant child care in North Carolina was more than the average annual tuition at a public four-year university in 2019, according to Child Care Aware America. In May 2019, 86% of private industry workers in the South Atlantic region, which includes North Carolina, lacked access to paid family leave — extended paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child or to address personal or family health issues — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And 38% of North Carolina workers did not have paid sick days in 2019, according to a brief by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Low-wage employees are less likely to have access to both paid family leave and paid sick days. Beth Messersmith, the campaign director for MomsRising’s North Carolina chapter, said the pandemic has made working parents, especially low-income workers and workers of color, choose between health and income.

“We’re telling people, rightfully so: Don’t go to work if you’re sick,” Messersmith said. “But if a family is facing potential eviction or not being able to feed their children because they don’t have any paid sick days, we put people in an impossible choice. We saw that every flu season before this, but it’s especially true right now. … A lot of our frontline essential workers … because they’re (in) low-wage jobs, are at increased likelihood of not having access to paid sick days, and that causes a public health risk. For a safe reopening and a safe long-term recovery, people have to be able to take care of their own health and the health of their family members without risking their jobs.”

As North Carolina businesses large and small reopen, Swartzlander said, Family Forward NC’s partners are realizing the necessity of paid leave, child care subsidies or on-site services, and flexible scheduling.

“As part of that ’emergency, right now I’ve got to keep my doors open’ (mentality), there’s an understanding there that part of that is having a workforce that’s healthy and safe and there,” she said. 

The Family Forward NC initiative — housed in the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation and funded by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and the North Carolina Institute of Medicine — has worked with more than 5,000 businesses since 2018, and is focusing on helping employers in the hospitality and manufacturing industries navigate reopening in sustainable ways. 

“Within the industries that are our focus, the percentage of workers who had access to a single day of paid sick leave was the lowest of any industry in the country,” Swartzlander said. “Those are the businesses that really need it because there’s less of an ability to work remotely and be flexible in that way.”

In 2017-18, less than 9% of hospitality and leisure employees could telework, and 30% of manufacturing workers could.

Low-income workers and Black and Hispanic workers are also less likely to be able to work from home than higher-income and white employees.

And low-income workers are less likely to have access to paid leave policies. For private industry workers in the lowest 25% of annual income, only 8% of employees had access to paid family leave in 2019 — compared with 35% of the top 25% of wage earners.

Swartzlander said she makes both the short-term case to businesses that these policies increase retention and productivity and the long-term one: that improving child development now means a stronger workforce down the line.

A 2019 study by the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University found a paid family and medical leave insurance program would increase labor participation and improve the health of mothers and babies in North Carolina.

The pandemic, Swartzlander said, has in ways made its own case for recognizing the realities of working parents. A Brookings Institution analysis of 2018 American Community Survey data found parents with children under 14 years old make up 24% of the state’s workforce. Nationally, the same analysis found 32% of the workforce are parents and 26% have children under 14 years old.

“I think that many employers are really seeing from the front lines what used to be a little bit more behind the scenes in terms of the challenges of parents who are working with children at home, and I think that that can only be a good thing when it comes to encouraging family-friendly business policies that will then support children and support families,” she said. “… People are also starting to get a better understanding of how many people of our country live on the edge and the impact on families from that.”

Lack of child care “basic barrier to employment”

Lisa Finaldi, NCECF’s community engagement leader, said the organization is hiring a human resources consultant to create reopening packages that are tailored to businesses’ needs and the evolving needs of parents. A lot of that has to do with the decisions of school districts and child care facilities.

“The idea is that as the virus ebbs and flows, and as we see what families are going through, to figure out where they’re headed with school, with child care, businesses have to be more flexible,” Finaldi said. 

Many school districts are considering longer-term remote learning, and the child care system, which did not meet family’s needs pre-pandemic, is struggling to survive. 

“These are all real concerns that parents are working through, and therefore it impacts ability to work and an employer’s ability to have the workforce that they need,” Swartzlander said. 

Chambers of commerce, including North Carolina’s, wrote to Congress in June asking for federal relief for an industry “on the brink of collapse.”

Kit Cramer, CEO of Asheville’s Chamber of Commerce, said rethinking child care is crucial for rebuilding the state’s economy. 

“The lack of it is a basic barrier to employment, and especially for people who are on the lower end of the economic scale,” Cramer said. But even if you are middle class, she added, “it is so expensive. It’s like buying a bad car a year. We’ve got to find ways to support [early educators] because it’s critical infrastructure for getting people re-employed.”

“We need to also have a public policy approach”

Although some private employers, as well as local and state government agencies, have adopted family-friendly policies in recent years, Messersmith said that pushing for public requirements is crucial.

“That high-road employer is so really important to making sure that families have what they need urgently, but we need to also have a public policy approach to make sure everybody’s covered,” she said.

North Carolina does not require access to paid family leave or paid sick days. Neither does federal law under normal circumstances.

In April, the federal coronavirus package included the country’s first mandated paid leave — for people sick with coronavirus, taking care of sick family members, or caring for children out of school. The policies, which end Dec. 31, left out about half of the workforce, including employees at businesses with more than 500 people. 

Usually, the federal government does not require paid sick or family leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act, which covers about 60% of the workforce, requires 12 weeks of unpaid family leave, but leaves out workers at small businesses. Eight states have enacted paid family leave policies.

Last session, legislation that would create a family and medical leave insurance program in North Carolina was introduced in the General Assembly, but it died in committee. Bills that would allow workers to earn a minimum number of sick days and would allow workers to use earned sick days to care for a sick family member were also filed in 2019 but not passed. Messersmith said these bills were not part of discussions in this year’s response to the pandemic.

With recommendations on these policies from such groups as The North Carolina Institute for Medicine’s April report on perinatal care, and last year’s North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan from the Department of Health and Human Services, she said she is hopeful for bipartisan support for these policies in the years to come.

“I think the reality is that people are seeing and feeling very much in their lives why this is needed, why it’s always been needed,” she said. “… The fact is that those caregiving responsibilities haven’t gone away. All the ones that people were dealing with beforehand — people are still welcoming new babies, people are still caring for family members with cancer — all of those are still happening while we’re also dealing with COVID.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated Swartzlander said working parents comprise about 30% of North Carolina’s workforce. Swartzlander was referring to the national workforce.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.