The pandemic has created many unprecedented situations for HR planning, but the remote, hybrid, and in-person school plans for this year are particularly complicated. Schools’ plans vary by city, state, and even grade, meaning employers must now prepare to accommodate staff that may have a variety of different needs. This situation is particularly complicated by HR standards because normally, the ideal scenario is for a company to come up with employee policies that can be applied pretty uniformly for everyone.
If you don’t apply the best HR strategies for the circumstances, you’re risking a lot. Low staff engagement, lower productivity, losing talent to turnover, creating a bad employer reputation, and even potential lawsuits are all on the table. This pandemic can either be your moment to alienate and frustrate your employees (who are already stressed as they face another unconventional school year and lack of childcare), or it could be your chance to make them feel supported and cement your reputation as an excellent company or organization to work for.
HR Planning Tips: Know Your Paid Leave Obligations
To start your strategic HR planning for potential childcare issues among your employees, you should review the various leaves that you might be responsible for.
FFCRA leaves for childcare: These could be applicable for as long as the end of 2020 (and could be extended further). Your workers are entitled to up to 12 workweeks for the purpose of caring for a child whose school or place of care has been closed, or whose childcare provider is unavailable due to COVID. (Note that if your workers are choosing to keep their children home because of COVID concerns, this doesn’t strictly qualify for an FFCRA leave. However, for the sake of improving employee engagement, you should probably find a way to work with an employee in this situation.)
Should any of your staff take an FFCRA leave, you’ll need to pay them at two-thirds of their regular rate up to $200 a day. You’ll then be reimbursed through tax credits. Employees only need to have worked for you for 30 days to be eligible. If they have already taken FMLA leave, that time will count against their potential FFCRA leave. Though the FFCRA says that there must be work available for the employee, a recent New York Federal court struck this down. While it may never be applicable nationally, the safest bet is to follow this principle and grant the requested leave if the worker is currently employed and you are in operation.
Exemptions from FFCRA Leaves: There are some exemptions to FFCRA leaves. However, it’s important to know that they are extremely limited. If you deny an FFCRA leave request, you’ll need to document your justification. Healthcare providers, emergency responders, and those who work at companies with less than 50 employees may all be exempt. This is a little more complicated than it sounds at face value, though. The definition of a healthcare provider has been narrowed considerably by the same New York Federal Court ruling mentioned above. It’s truly only applicable to people who are providing some kind of healthcare, not necessarily people who work in a healthcare facility.
If you’re an employer with less than 50 people, you may want to discuss it with HR consulting and/or legal counsel if you’re going to deny FFCRA leaves. You need to be able to make, and document, a business case that the employee requesting the leave is so instrumental that it would seriously hurt your operations and revenue.
Intermittent Use of FFCRA Leaves: Depending on their child’s daycare or schooling plan, your staff members might request an intermittent FFCRA leave. The DOL is encouraging flexibility from employers on this. Ideally you would sit down with an employee and discuss what might work best for both parties. Partial or full days, a different schedule, etc. As a business, you’ll have significant leeway to approve or deny a leave taken intermittently. But, as mentioned above, employee morale is important right now. Try not to deny requests flat out. Working something out with an employee can go a long way in ensuring that they are loyal to you, productive, and spread good impressions among other employees or potential new hires.
HR Planning Tips for Other Kinds of Leave
Beyond FFCRA leaves, your workers may request other kinds of leave to deal with complicated childcare arrangements during this school year. You can be prepared by re-examining both state-mandated sick leaves, FMLA policy, and your own company’s sick leave policy. Think about how all of these might apply and what you’ll do if employees come to you requesting a leave to take care of children. If you have time to think about it beforehand, you can come up with the most advantageous plan for all sides and you’ll be able to fairly respond to every employee.
HR Planning Tips for Accommodations and Other Arrangements
If an employee doesn’t want (or doesn’t qualify for) leave, accommodations or alternative arrangements are a great solution. Don’t just go into these discussions blindly, though. Make sure you’re educated on the ADA, as well as other best practices that HR providers recommend. This way you can also have a uniform base of knowledge that you use as you deal with individual employees. While the solutions might not always be the same, you can use similar principles, keeping the same spirit of the accommodation or arrangement for everyone on your staff who needs it.
- The ADA: If an employee or one of their family members becomes ill, the ADA might be applicable. It may also be applicable if you have an employee, or an employee with a family member, who is at high risk for serious complications with COVID. Of course, you have more responsibility if the party that is sick or at high risk is your employee. While you still have a responsibility to do your best to make an accommodation, you do have slightly more leeway if the reason for the request is a family member. The key is to avoid ‘associational discrimination,’ or discrimination against an employee with a spouse, child, parent, etc. with a disability. One thing you can do for every employee who needs to invoke the ADA, no matter what their request or situation, is to engage in an interactive process. Sit down and have a discussion where you understand what the staff member is requesting and what they need. Do your best to come to a reasonable solution that benefits every party as much as possible.
- More on family responsibilities and discrimination: As you respond to employees who need accommodations or alternative schedules, keep in mind that it’s important not to discriminate against an employee with family responsibilities, no matter their gender, sex, etc. For example, don’t assume a woman will need leave to care for her children, or that a man won’t need leave because his wife will take on this duty. Discrimination against somebody for family responsibilities is indeed covered under ‘sex discrimination,’ so don’t expose yourself to potential lawsuits or complaints.
- Flexible work arrangements: Don’t hesitate to offer flexible work arrangements or alternative scheduling to an employee with childcare issues. Even if remote options or alternative scheduling hasn’t worked well for you in the past, keep in mind that this is a new scenario. In addition to considering a flexible schedule and telework options, you might even allow the employee to bring their child (or children) to work if they’re well-behaved and won’t disrupt business. If none of these works, you could temporarily reduce an employee’s hours, move them from exempt to non-exempt, or even move them to a department or company branch with more flexibility. Keep an open mind, and you may find a solution that makes everyone happy.
8 Steps to Take in Your HR Planning
Now that you’re aware of the challenges you might face as your employees grapple with a lack of childcare this school year, here are some steps you should take to prepare.
- Re-examine your existing policies. Make sure your existing policies won’t be abused or make things harder during this circumstance. You’ll want to seek out input from any sources to create some new, temporary policies for leave, time off, sick time, and teleworking. You should consult legal counsel, your internal executive team, HR consulting if you have it, as well as employees. It would be helpful to hear from people who are and are not parents. When you write the new, temporary policy, it will be helpful to use language that gives you the right to end it at any time: if it’s being abused, if it’s not applicable, if the pandemic becomes milder or worse, etc.
- Stay up to date on the law and remember it could change at any time. This might be a great time to consider HR services from a provider like MP, who can help you navigate all the tricky challenges of the pandemic.
- Review job descriptions. Some roles could be done remotely or on alternative schedules, even if they haven’t been before.
- Facilitate support for parents facing childcare challenges. Facilitate a forum for them to discuss resources and solutions, shared nannying, tutoring, etc.
- Allow FSA changes. Your employees may need it now if they didn’t before. They may also need it less or want to change the amount of money they put in.
- Think about offering childcare onsite or stipends for childcare.
- Do some forecasting and modeling. What will be your plan A, B, and C? Preparation will make everything easier.
- Work with employees. Be empathetic to their struggles right now and do your best to support them. This is a time of unprecedented challenges and stress. Remember that your workers are your most valuable asset, especially if you treat them that way!
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