As the start of the school year quickly approaches, employers are juggling with yet another challenge: employee child care.
Springfield Public Schools announced its reopening plan last month for the fall, giving parents the choice to send their children to SPS classrooms for two days a week with three days of virtual learning or to do full-time virtual learning.
With either option, parents will need to arrange child care, leaving employers to assess work from home policies. Some say flexibility is key right now.
“Our goal is to be as flexible with our folks as possible because we want to keep as many as we can,” said Clif Smart, president of Missouri State University, which employs roughly 2,200 full-time employees.
Smart said most of them will be able to work from home as needed – like when children are home for virtual learning days.
“We’ve also authorized everyone to do office hours on Zoom,” he said. “It’s about trying to be as flexible to help get people through this.”
Other large employers, such as CoxHealth, Bass Pro Shops and the city of Springfield, have been working with staff to find solutions for the upcoming year.
However, about half of the respondents of an SBJ.net poll taken Aug. 6-12 said their employer had not provided options for the fall. Forty-three percent reported they will be allowed to work remotely, while the remainder were offered other solutions, such as child care. Nearly 220 people responded to the poll.
Springfield’s largest employer, CoxHealth, has relaxed some work policies and even made child care available for its 12,500 employees.
Andy Hedgpeth, vice president of human resources, said the SPS decision and COVID-19 has made the health system “fully revamp” how it gets work done.
“We recently relaxed our remote work policy to say that if you have kiddos at home and you’re having to choose what to do on these flex days when they’re not seated in class, we’re going to let you stay home on those days,” Hedgpeth said of jobs that do not involve in-person patient care. “Our traditional policy would have said you needed to procure child arrangements.”
If employees aren’t able to work remotely, CoxHealth announced earlier this month that it would provide space at The Meyer Center for children to learn when they aren’t seated in a classroom. CoxHealth is partnering with Ozarks Technical Community College and Drury and Evangel universities to tutor the kids in K-6 grades. Over 200 children were signed up by press time.
Hedgpeth said the program cost to employees is on a sliding scale up to $35 a week, based on their pay levels. And they’re able to apply for assistance through the CoxHealth Employee Heroes Fund, which was established early in the pandemic by the CoxHealth Foundation.
The health system is footing the roughly $20,000 weekly bill for the remainder of the learning support program, Hedgpeth said, to cover food, additional employees and other operational costs.
“We’re looking at this as an investment in our workforce,” he said.
Discovery Center of Springfield Inc. and EnCompass Academy also have announced learning support programs available during the week.
Additionally, CoxHealth is reevaluating positions to see if more can work remotely and officials are asking employees without school-age children to consider changing their work schedules.
For some, remote work is still working. Geoffrey Butler, founding partner of BRP Architects, said the company is continuing to work from home this fall, which mitigates the need to identify child care options.
“All of our employees have been able to manage their work and manage their kids at the same time with very little difficulty,” he said. “We haven’t mandated anyone to go back to work in the office because we are very concerned about people getting (COVID-19) and spreading it.”
Butler said the company will work from home for the foreseeable future.
At the city of Springfield, officials are still working through options with its staff, but flexibility is the city’s main focus, said Cora Scott, director of public information and civic engagement. That means flexible work hours, compressed workweeks or reduced work schedules when possible, she said, adding the city is utilizing remote work for those who are able to do their job outside of the office. The city employs over 2,300 people.
“We are still exploring other ideas, particularly for our health care and first responder workers who don’t have the same flexibility options,” she said. “We recognize this is a major challenge.”
Other local employers have addressed the issue on a case-by-case basis.
Jack Wlezien, director of communications for Bass Pro Shops, said the company is identifying concerns with employees individually. Bass Pro Shops employed 6,000 locally and 35,000 companywide in 2019, according to Springfield Business Journal research.
“We certainly understand the extra burden and difficult decisions some parents face as their school districts modify their operating plans,” he said in a statement to SBJ. “Like everything else with COVID, we’re relying on collaboration and teamwork to ensure a smooth transition.”
Other large employers were still evaluating its policies by press time.
Officials at O’Reilly Automotive Inc. (Nasdaq: ORLY), which employed 2,377 locally in 2019, haven’t finalized plans for the upcoming school semester. Spokesperson Mark Merz said the public company has to consider local, state and national guidelines for some 80,000 employees across 47 states.
Guaranty Federal Bancshares Inc. (Nasdaq: GFED) employees recently completed a survey to identify concerns for the upcoming school year, but a company plan was not in place by press time, said President and CEO Shaun Burke.
“With facilities throughout southwest Missouri, we have numerous school districts with … back-to-school plans that continue to change,” he said of the bank’s 231-employee workforce. “A ‘one-size-fits-all’ program is not possible.”
A Pleasant Hope beef processing plant that expects to employ nearly 300 workers is on target to open next month.
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