Georgia job benefits tested as parents face another pandemic challenge

Elder Care Law office employee's children work on their schoolwork while being supervised by recent UGA graduate Sophia Ramirez in Marietta Monday, August 17, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Elder Care Law office employee's children work on their schoolwork while being supervised by recent UGA graduate Sophia Ramirez in Marietta Monday, August 17, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

It’s a sign of the times that six kids, from kindergarten to middle school age, gather five days a week in a back conference room of a Marietta law firm.

While their parents work at the firm, they attend school online, with a tutor watching over them. The boss is picking up the tab.

“I don’t know what I would do otherwise,” said paralegal Betsy Walraven.

Neither she nor her husband work from home. Family members weren’t available to watch their 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. Day care and sitters were beyond their income.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues into a new school year, parents fret over juggling work with the responsibilities of overseeing their children’s at-home learning, especially as schooling is expected to be more rigorous compared to what was in place during the spring. Georgia employers are facing pressure to help.

Broad shifts have been made by employers, but efforts like the one underway at Nelson Elder Care Law appear to be uncommon. At least for now.

Recent UGA graduate Sophia Ramirez (C) helps David Walraven, 12, with his schoolwork at the Nelson Elder Care Law office in Marietta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Recent UGA graduate Sophia Ramirez (C) helps David Walraven, 12, with his schoolwork at the Nelson Elder Care Law office in Marietta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

About 13 million Americans in prime working years have young children. Forty percent of U.S. employers say they are concerned some employees will not fully return to work because of worries about child care as well as about health and safety, according to a recent report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

The upheaval caused by shifts to virtual learning highlights how crucial schools are for child care, not just teaching.

“In order for business to come back and come back in full, there is a recognition that employees with young children will need access to quality child care,” said Brittany Birken, a principal adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

The issue can be particularly difficult for low-wage workers, who have less flexibility to come up with alternatives.

The child care challenge during the pandemic was a factor some metro Atlanta companies said they considered when they stuck with work-from-home options for months or added flexibility in work hours and days.

Some 79% of U.S. employers surveyed shifted a significant portion of their workforce to remote work, according to the chamber foundation report. Only 1% of employers reported offering direct child care assistance, such as on-site or nearby care or subsidies for back-up child care as a result of the pandemic.

Some companies are allowing full-time workers to go part-time as they sort through the challenges. Many more are adding flexibility in how work-from-home is structured, such as allowing workers to block out time to guide younger kids through virtual classes or to handle other child care needs.

Cindy Nelson poses for a photograph at the Nelson Elder Care Law office in Marietta.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Cindy Nelson poses for a photograph at the Nelson Elder Care Law office in Marietta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

At the Alpharetta-based cybersecurity firm DefenseStorm, Chief Executive Officer Steve Soukup made clear that work-from-home options would continue. The company outfitted some employees with noise-canceling headphones. More importantly, he stressed flexibility.

“What we are saying now is, if you need time to take care of personal matters, take care of personal matters. There is less rigor around the traditional 9-5,” Soukup said.

J.C. Lopez, a principal security engineer for the company, said he splits child care duties with his wife, who is an intensive care unit nurse. They had concerns about sending their 11-year-old and 3-year-old to classrooms during the pandemic. Assurances about Lopez working from home made it easier for them to choose an online learning options through their kids’ schools, he said.

“It is definitely challenging,” he said, but it is doable.

Meanwhile, he said, it’s a more difficult challenge for a friend who works for another company and is a single dad with three kids. That friend’s boss strongly advised workers to return to offices. The man eventually lined up a neighbor to help out with child care.

At the Nelson Elder Care Law, Walraven said she had been able to get by earlier in the pandemic by working from home some days. But work has grown far busier. She was grateful to be allowed to bring her kids to the office in recent months. Before the tutor started, she had to remind her children that they couldn’t behave the same way as at home.

“My son just walked out into the lobby without his shoes on. I said, ‘What are you doing?‘ I say, ‘Remember we are in an office. You can’t leave trash around. You have to be quiet.‘”

Walraven, who had been a school teacher, said the school work is more intense than it was last spring and requires more attention for kids to stay on track. Having a tutor in the office “has taken one big, huge worry off of my plate.”

Nelson, who started the law firm, said she has committed to pay for the tutor at least through the end of the semester if needed by her employees. The children wear masks and are kept away from the firm’s clients. Cleaning protocols were increased.

“Not every job can be done from home,” Nelson said. “I felt like it was the right thing to do to help them through this time. They are good employees. We work together as a family.”

 Cindy Nelson visits with the children while they work on their school assignments at the Nelson Elder Care Law office in Marietta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Cindy Nelson visits with the children while they work on their school assignments at the Nelson Elder Care Law office in Marietta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

There are longer term issues for the nation, she said. “If children are not going to be able to go back to school or into group settings, we are going to have to rethink the way we work and the way we raise our families.”

For now, Truist, the bank created by the merger of Atlanta-based SunTrust and BB&T, said more than half of its employees are in alternative working arrangements.

“We’ve empowered our leaders to be as accommodating as possible with work schedules, in addition to providing an extra 10 paid days off for teammates to use for child care or to help acclimate children to virtual learning,” chief human resources officer Kimberly Moore-Wright wrote in an email.

The company also partnered with a firm called SitterCity to make it easier for employees to find back-up child care. And it has added free online tutoring resources through Tutor.com.

Bank of America offered employees reimbursement of some child care costs, depending on household income, even before the pandemic. Since the spread of the virus, it expanded to offer $75 or $100 a day of back-up child care through the end of the year. It also expanded a partnership with Khan Academy to provide more free, interactive learning materials.

Investment giant BlackRock, which has an office in metro Atlanta, offers up to 60 days of back-up care for children or elderly family members as well as online activities for children.

As the pandemic lingers, child care assistance offered by employers is shifting from a nice extra to a necessity, said Ken Zeff, the executive director of Learn4Life, a local partnership of school, civic and business leaders focused on improving education outcomes for underserved students.

“Employers have started to realize this is a long-term proposition,” he said, “and they need to start making long-term plans.”

Paralegal Betsy Walraven poses for a photograph at the Nelson Elder Care Law office in Marietta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Paralegal Betsy Walraven poses for a photograph at the Nelson Elder Care Law office in Marietta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer