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Child Care and COVID-19

6 Mins read

The discussion of investing in child care and its benefits is not new. Earlier this week, there were calls for ‘free child care’ to increase access to lower care costs, including child care. The coronavirus epidemic has exacerbated the problem worldwide.

Globally, the lack of affordable and quality child care remains an important barrier to allowing parents, especially women, to participate fully in the workforce. Businesses are struggling harder than ever to meet their skills needs. And while talented people seek employment, many are unable to satisfy the seemingly difficult family and work responsibilities. 

But there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Many governments and employers are starting to recognise the four steak holders to achieve a win-win value proposition: 

  1. tackling childcare is ‘good for children, 
  2. good for parents, 
  3. good for employers and 
  4. good for economies 

Here is how the coronavirus crisis has been advancing this agenda.

Engaging more men in unpaid care 

Before COVID-19, globally, women spent three times more on unpaid care and domestic work than men, which – over a lifetime – translates to a total of four more years than men. The coronavirus pandemic has further increased women’s involvement: new research by Ipsos and in consultation with UN Women confirms that across 18 countries surveyed in May 2020, women are indeed taking on more responsibilities for household chores as for the care of children and family members during the pandemic.

Take the example of the United States. Here new Northwestern University research confirms that mothers took responsibility for a much larger share of childcare than fathers before the crisis. This was largely because there are more single mothers than single fathers and many more stay-at-home mothers than fathers. Yet, even when both parents work full time, women were found to spend 40% more time on childcare than men. The coronavirus-related lockdowns magnified this unequal division: importantly, women in the U.S. picked-up a larger share of the extra childcare duties during the lockdown than men. 

This is not so different from Germany, where men spent 52% less on unpaid care work before the pandemic than women. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, here to women still do most of the care work. Yet, some argue that the pandemic is helping close the care gap: men’s involvement in care work on average increased by 120%, while the increase was a mere 45% for women. Others are less optimistic. 

According to research by the Hans-Böckler Foundation, among surveyed couples who felt that care responsibilities were previously equally distributed in their family, two months into the pandemic, only 60% perceived that childcare responsibilities are now similarly shared. Often households find it easier to ‘sacrifice’ and reallocate working hours of the lower-income earner to additional care responsibilities – which usually happens to be women. 

What is clear is that the pandemic has made women’s unpaid care work more visible to their partner and society, in many cases has led to men taking on and/or appreciating such work more. Some suggest the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity resulting in men taking on and likely to continue to be more engaged beyond the pandemic in the future.

Prompting government action

The European Union has viewed accessing affordable, quality childcare as a solution to overcoming significant barriers to (women’s) labor market participation. Before the pandemic, women spent 13 hours more than men every week on unpaid care and housework than men. Following the introduction of the Barcelona Targets on Childcare in 2002, 95% of 4-year old children across the EU were enrolled in early childcare and compulsory education by 2018 (with variable results in member states). Also, more than one-third of children up to the age of three years old were cared for through formal arrangements. Yet, 56% of women versus 50% of men still reported an unmet demand for childcare needs across the EU in 2019 according to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE)

Very much linked to the provision of childcare shared with men is the topic of maternity, paternity, and parental leave. The 2020 World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law Report found that 115 economies guarantee paid maternity leave of 14 weeks or more. However, in almost 50 percent of economies that provide any form of paid maternity leave, the burden falls fully or partially on the employer, making hiring women more costly than hiring men. Some countries have put in place provisions to encourage more men to get involved in caretaking. More than half of the 190 economies covered by Women, Business and the Law mandate paid leave specifically reserved for fathers (the overall duration being relative short at around 5 days). Parental leave, which can be shared by mothers and fathers, was offered by only 43 countries. In an effort to further strengthen the redistribution of childcare responsibilities between women and men, the EU passed in 2019 a new directive aimed at increasing the amount of leave available to both parents. Member states have three years to adopt legislation complying with the directive. 

COVID-19 has magnified the importance of accessible quality childcare particularly for single parents and particularly for those households where both parents are essential workers. In fact, women make up almost 85% of all single parents in the EU and almost half (48%) are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, compared to a third (32%) of single fathers. In Germany alone, there are 900,000 single-headed households, 90% of which are headed by women.

Noting that gender equality makes households more crisis resilient, Germany’s Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth Franziska Giffey announced the country’s first national gender equality strategy on June 8, 2020. Among the strategy’s many 2030 goals: increased accessibly of government financed childcare support – plus, an explicit target that every other father will take paid paternity leave and spend significant time with their children.

Driving employers’ leadership

Leading employers understand that support to parents can significantly improve employees’ attraction and retention, reducing turnover cost and improving productivity, which can generate returns for employers that outweigh any short-term costs. 

The corona pandemic showed that family-targeted benefits allowed many employers to manage new productivity challenges better. In early May 2020, the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) conducted a survey of 260 Erfolgsfaktor Familie member companies of which 76% reported that existing work life balance programs and mobile working initiatives allowed them to quickly react to the shutdowns of schools and kindergartens and thereby retain a competitive advantage. Another 30% of employers surveyed as part of the ‘Success Factor Family’ initiative introduced working from home arrangements for the first time once faced by the coronavirus pandemic. 

There are initial indications that new home-office arrangements have indeed been positive for many companies and parents. Research by voiio, a German company specialized in offering childcare support services for employers, found that 81% of 800 parents surveyed in June 2020 stated that home-office arrangements made their employer more attractive. For those who experienced working from home for the first time due to the pandemic, more than half stated that a ‘working from home option’ as part of their employer-offered benefits package will be a key consideration for choosing their employer the future. 

What’s more, the pandemic also contributed significantly to the expansion of voiio’s innovative digital childcare support offering. During the crisis, this German company (that currently supports 203 employers with a total of 307.000 employees and looks after 16.900 children) learnt that virtual classes in sports and music as well as virtual homework support were particularly popular among the parents and their children. Prior to the crisis, only 17% of surveyed parents had ever used digital support services targeted at children. This number more than doubled during the crisis. “Given the success of our digital offering with parents and the demand from employers, I am convinced that digital childcare services will increasingly play a significant role in the new work environments of the future,” said Björn Wind, voiio’s CEO.

What’s next?

Childcare support is a complicated business. It takes governments, employers, parents, and childcare providers to work together. But when done right, childcare support can lead to benefits for all. 

What is clear is that just throwing money at the issue alone is unlikely to do the trick. Childcare needs to be available, affordable and – importantly- meet quality standards that parents can trust. 

Since the pandemic, leading employers have been taking additional steps to support their employees. Among the traditional menu of now expanded support options are flexible working arrangements, just-in-time/emergency back-up childcare, and financial support to employees. Specific to the corona pandemic, many employers also started to focus on families’ mental health and well-being by organizing parents groups. Furthermore, some employers are facilitating coaching sessions for parents so they can better help their children navigate new coronavirus realities. For those employers interested in exploring childcare support amid the coronavirus pandemic, the World Bank Group’s private sector arm (the International Finance Corporation) recently produced childcare guidance for employers

However, it is essential to note that as the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in millions of layoffs and furloughs, many don’t have the good fortune to work for an employer – let alone working for an employer that offers additional family-friendly services. What’s more, even before the pandemic, it was more challenging for small and medium-sized enterprises to provide family-friendly services than for large corporates. Yet even smaller employers have started to explore local consortiums and public-private partnerships at the community level.

Just as the coronavirus infects all – women and men, rich and poor – a lack of childcare also impacts everyone. As countries rebuild for the better, it will be essential to prioritize childcare as an investment in the future workforce, leading to more productive generations in the future.

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