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COVID-19 Spotlights Need for Employers to Expand Family and Parental Leave Policies

New report finds that benefit changes may determine whether many women stay in the workforce

spinner image Woman working at home on a laptop next to her young son and mother
filadendron/Getty Images

Seven months into the global pandemic and it appears the coronavirus is taking yet another harsh, unexpected toll: Women are abandoning their careers and leaving corporate America.

The nonstop juggling of work commitments and family needs in the face of day care, school, nursing home and office closures is causing many women to opt out of the workforce. In September alone, 865,000 women age 20 and older left the workforce, compared with 216,000 men, according to a National Women's Law Center analysis of Labor Department data.

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New research from an AARP/S&P Global survey of 1,573 individuals examining the relationship between family-friendly benefits and female representation in both the workforce and senior management found that 58 percent of caregivers report spending increased time caring for adults since the pandemic began; 61 percent of adults have increased their child care responsibilities. While those numbers are not surprising, the impact may have a long-term effect.

spinner image graphic showing the Stress level at home due to providing family care after COVID-19

"Stress has gone up,” said Robert Stephen, AARP vice president of caregiving and health, noting that 30 percent of those surveyed said they had a strong increase in stress, while 43 percent admit to a moderate increase in stress. “Almost three-quarters of the caregivers are saying they're more stressed. That really, really points to the need for more self-care."

"As much as I wish it weren't the case, I still believe that women serve double duty,” said Pamela Sutton-Wallace, senior vice president and regional chief operating officer at New York-Presbyterian, one of the largest hospitals in the U.S. — a role she began in January 2020. “In my generation, it's still the case that women are doing a disproportionate share of the housework and disproportionate share of the child caregiving and parental support."

Sutton-Wallace has two college-age daughters and a mother who lives with her.

spinner image Pamela Sutton-Wallace with her two daughters
NewYork-Presbyterian Senior Vice President and Regional Chief Operating Officer Pamela Sutton-Wallace with her two daughters.
Courtesy Pamela Sutton-Wallace

"Many of us are in that sandwich generation where we are still raising our children and now have to begin caring for our parents. And I'm on the early part of that journey,” she said in an interview with S&P Global. “While my mother is physically able to move around and is relatively physically healthy, we are starting to see her have early memory decline, and I think we're just hitting a point now where we're not comfortable with her being home alone.”

So, what can employers do to retain these overstressed but valuable workers? First, companies need long-term, family-friendly (not just COVID-friendly) policies that include nontraditional work hours and flexible locations. And leaders need to create a culture that allows workers to feel secure taking leave when it is provided.

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U.S. family leave policies are out of sync with those in the rest of the developed world. The United States is the only country within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that doesn't provide nationwide paid family leave of any kind — maternity, paternity or parental — according to a 2019 UNICEF report on family-friendly policies. It also does not require companies to provide paid caregiving leave; instead, the onus is on states and the private sector to lead the charge.

The good news: The drastic measures that many companies had to employ to continue productivity during the pandemic have accelerated these conversations.

Carol Sladek, a partner in the consumer experience practice at Aon Hewitt and founder and leader of the company's work-life consulting team, said the pandemic has thrust employers into a number of “sudden and chaotic experiments” regarding the benefits they offer.

COVID-19 has made family caregiving an even bigger issue because companies don't want employees coming to work if they have an ill family member, she said.

"We've seen organizations with no choice,” Sladek said. “As a result, I am actually really optimistic about how much these trends have advanced in the last six months. And we've probably seen 10 to 15 years of growth that we would have seen at the traditional speed and curve.”

Sutton-Wallace said both government and the private sector have key roles to play in propelling family leave policies.

"Oftentimes, a governmental approach or policy kind of pulls everybody else along,” she said. “Countries that invest in pre-K and offer high-quality pre-K services and child care have clearly been able to demonstrate better educational and health outcomes for those children later in their lives.”

She noted that the coronavirus prompted some states to issue executive orders requiring companies to keep paying employees if they got sick or had to provide care for a loved one — particularly important for the 48 million U.S. family caregivers, since nursing homes have been hard hit by COVID-19.

"It gets so caught up in the politics that I think it's really imperative that the private sector take the lead to demonstrate the wonderful outcomes that happen and the support you get from the workforce,” Sutton-Wallace said. “When the workforce feels supported, they are fiercely loyal and generally more productive.”

AARP's Stephen agreed. For family caregivers, “it's important to remember as they're going through all this they're not alone,” he said. “I think they are being seen more by their employers, and there's an understanding that wasn't there previously."

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