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Greenville Business Magazine

Parents Challenged to Work, Care for Children at Same Time

Aug 27, 2020 03:12PM ● By David Dykes

By Cindy Landrum 

A new school year is here, and some parents are asking how they’ll continue to juggle their jobs and their children during the coronavirus pandemic.

What many thought was a temporary balancing act when schools closed last spring has become a continuing problem as businesses consider reopening offices and many districts adopted schedules that have students attending school in-person less than full-time.

“We need to make sure we understand how important child care is to our economy,” said Ted Pitts, president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. “The child care industry is a vital piece of our economic ecosystem.”

So what is a business’s role in ensuring employees who can’t afford a private tutor or have family who can watch the kids can find the child care they need to go to work?

It’s a question that some businesses have grappled with since early in the pandemic, when over 50 percent of the state’s licensed child care facilities closed.

Contec, Inc., a Spartanburg-based manufacturer of critical cleaning products that employs over 500 employees, created a program modeled after the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. It gave employees who had been with the company at least six months six weeks of emergency childcare leave at two-thirds of their salary, up to $5,000 through the end of the year. That doubled for employees who had been with the company for at least one year.

A handful of manufacturing employees transferred from first shift to third shift to be home with their children during the day, CEO Jack McBride said.

“That obviously is not a long-term solution,” he said.

Contec has talked to Primrose Schools, a national system of accredited private preschools. McBride said he would consider trying to get a franchise sponsored by several companies in the area if there’s a need.

McBride said many places such as museums have expressed a willingness to open their spaces for students’ programs on days they do not physically attend school. Contec has talked internally about allowing its salespeople, who are not being allowed in pharmaceutical manufacturers or hospital pharmacies because of the pandemic, to help with child education.

“I think there’s many people willing to do something, we just don’t know what that needs to be right now,” he said.

Some hospitals worked with organizations such as the YMCA to ensure essential employees had access to child care so they could work.

Nephron Pharmaceuticals in West Columbia, which manufactures generic respiratory medications, started a day camp for children up to 11 years old in mid-March.

But Pitts doesn’t think a lot of companies will start on-site child care centers.

“I don’t see that as a change that will come post-pandemic,” he said. “I think you will see companies be more aware of being flexible to accommodate child care needs.”

Some school districts are starting this week, while others, such as the Charleston County School District, will begin after Labor Day. 

How school operates once students return varies, too. Greenville County – the state’s largest school district - will mix having students go for in-person instruction and eLearning the rest of the week. Some parents opted out of having their children attend school in-person at all and enrolled them in fully virtual programs.

“Businesses have navigated the situation to this point. I think we’re getting ready to see it be an even larger problem as we try to start the school year back,” Pitts said.

The mishmash of school makes it difficult for businesses to plan, he said.

“A lot of the complaints we get are about the lack of uniformity across school districts,” he said. “Businesses have proven they’re good at adapting and adjusting. But having each school district do its own thing makes it hard for businesses to plan and accommodate their employees. There’s no uniformity across school districts, and sometimes there’s no uniformity inside a school district.”

An employer can have employees coming from several school districts and communities, Pitts said.

“Each employee’s solution may be different. From a care perspective, it’s not something that one company could fix or solve,” he said.

On-site child care may work for preschoolers but would not make sense for elementary school-aged children who attend a school where they live, which may not be near where the company is located, he said. Plus, most South Carolina employees work for small businesses for which starting a child care program would not be economically feasible, he said.

Melissa McDonald, director of the South Carolina Child Care Resource and Referral at the University of South Carolina, said employers who are considering starting an on-site child care center should assess its employee population to determine if it is sustainable. Employers need to decide whether the center would be open to the public and whether they would run the program or hire somebody to manage it for them.

“Opening a child care center may not be the best option,” she said.

Pitts said the continuing pandemic will force employers to be flexible. He said state and federal lawmakers could help if they would pass liability reform protecting child care providers from frivolous COVID-19- related lawsuits.

“Until policymakers address that issue, I think we’re going to have trouble getting child care centers back,” he said.