Big firms are (finally) boosting childcare benefits

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By Sarah Green Carmichael

Whether or not your company is pushing employees to return to the office, a la JPMorgan, or letting them stay home, a la Google, Deutsche Bank and pretty much everyone else, the question remains: what the heck to do with the kids.

The U.S. remains a confusing patchwork of partially open, partially closed schools. Children learning via screen need supervision to help them stay focused. So far, that’s mostly meant parents. In the spring, 60% of working parents functioned with no outside childcare, according to a BCG survey, spending an extra 27 hours each week taking care of the children, helping them with school and doing other household tasks. Half admitted it had hurt their work performance.

This has left companies scrambling to figure out how to get the work done — and prevent employees from burning out.

It’s terra incognita for a lot of organizations. Many companies tend to think of children, when they think of them at all, as a kind of private hobby. Studies on working parents have confirmed again and again that bosses more readily give time off to employees for non-child reasons — like a bucket-list vacation or training for a marathon — than they do to those who ask for the same amount of time to raise children.

Change is long overdue. Pre-pandemic, offering family-friendly benefits was fairly rare — rare enough to prompt the Society for Human Resource Management to note, in its rather dry way, that “benefits in this area may represent an opportunity for employers as they are often among those that generate the most enthusiasm from employees, and many can be provided at low cost.”

One in four companies allow parents to bring kids to work in a childcare emergency, according to SHRM, but only 11% offer a childcare referral service, and just 4% offer a childcare program. Non-family benefits are much more common: 56% of firms offer tuition assistance, 39% acupuncture coverage and 15% pet health insurance. Yep, pet health insurance.

The pandemic has started to alter that calculus. Companies are starting to realize that they can’t leave working parents twisting in the wind, trying to figure this out individually with their supervisors — the problem is too big. “It is a business issue,” says Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer at Accenture. This isn’t something you can fix by being the world’s most flexible boss, or most diligent employee.

So employers are starting to offer more tangible help, especially those in the finance, consulting and tech industries. This is no surprise — these sectors have more cash than most and compete ruthlessly on talent. “In February, unemployment was record low,” says Shook. “We were truly in a war for talent. I believe we will be back there again. And actions companies take today will be long remembered.” With that in mind, talent-focused firms are rethinking how to support working parents.

JPMorgan, Citigroup and Bank of America have all boosted childcare benefits. For example, JPMorgan is offering employees discounts on tutoring, learning pods and full-time childcare, and increasing employee access to emergency backup childcare. Citigroup will help employees find other families to join their learning pod, and Bank of America is offering to reimburse parents to the tune of $75 or $100 a day to pay for childcare, depending on their salaries.

Accenture is leading an effort with Bright Horizons to get kids ages 6-12 into some semblance of school — a subsidized daycare program for groups of 10-12 students, who would follow their own public school’s remote learning lessons under adult supervision. Bank of America and Microsoft are among the other firms that have signed on. Shook explains that they’re offering the program through a cost-sharing mechanism in which the company will pay 75%, so that the cost to the employee is roughly $5 an hour.

Dell Technologies, too, is offering a menu of new options for parents, says Kristi Hummel, senior vice president of human resources. The company is expanding employee access to nanny placement services; to tutoring, whether virtual, one-on-one or group-based; and to a service that helps parents find off-site childcare. They’ve also granted access to a marketplace parents can use to find a nearby learning pod of the right age group for their child.

A cynic might say — especially given JPMorgan’s well-publicized attempts to get employees back to the office — that this is all just a way to get parents to work harder. But the parents I’ve talked with would dearly love to do just that. They adore their children, of course, but they want to stop being Zoom-enabled teachers’ aides and go back to their day jobs.

And some observers will no doubt find it strange that private firms are engaged in helping employees make childcare arrangements. Perhaps it seemed strange when corporations started to offer access to health insurance, too.

Not everything to come out of this horrible pandemic is itself horrible, and if more companies start supporting their working parents, that could be a real silver lining.

Bloomberg News
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