WCMA Notes: Retain Workforce as Pandemic, Child Care Disruptions Persist

WCMA News,

With ten percent of America’s workforce currently filing for jobless benefits amid the coronavirus pandemic, it seems strange to say that we have a labor shortage. Yet, between unemployment enhancers and personal health concerns, most dairy industry employers know, good help remains hard to find.

Now, we may be on the cusp of another labor exodus.

In July, a U.S. Census study found that one in five working-age Americans left their jobs earlier this year, because the pandemic left them without care for their children. At the height of stay-at-home orders, nearly all the nation’s schools and 60 percent of child care centers closed.

Today, 20 percent of those child care centers remain shuttered. And, the start of the new academic year offers little relief. More than half of American elementary and high school students will head “back to school” online only and another 19 percent of students are set to participate in hybrid learning – a mix of online and in-person instruction.

With limited options come difficult decisions, particularly as weeks become months, and quarters become semesters. A recent Care.com survey revealed that, should schools fail to fully reopen and stay open this fall, up to 20 percent of working parents would be searching for a new job, and 15 percent might leave the workforce altogether.

Make no mistake, this situation isn’t just a parents’ problem. It’s a problem for employers.

Viewed through a more positive prism, it may also be an opportunity. Here are five simple, low-cost ways dairy industry employers can adapt their benefits, policies, and culture now to retain staff, and cultivate a loyal, productive workforce for years to come.

1. Offer child care assistance.

When reviewing employee benefits, consider adding a dependent care Flexible Spending Account or “FSA” for workers. The money an employee contributes to it is not subject to payroll taxes, so they end up taking home more of their paycheck – or, as is more likely the case, using it for ever-increasing child care costs. Dependent care FSAs can be used to save up to $5,000 annually to pay for preschool and daycare for children under the age of 13.

2. Encourage remote work, whenever possible.

As many employers have been doing throughout the pandemic, encourage any worker who can do their job remotely to do just that. Be sure to note to essential on-site personnel – your dairy production and packaging teams, for instance, whose jobs cannot be done elsewhere – that fewer people in the facility will also result in less risk of COVID-19 transmission.

3. Be flexible.

Via a survey of Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association members, we know that most dairy manufacturers and processors adjusted attendance policies at the start of the pandemic to encourage employees with any COVID-19 symptoms to stay home. That grace remains critically important to workplace wellness – but be ready to flex still more in the months ahead.

Second shift work may pair better with the parental demands of a school district’s distance learning schedule. Perhaps a half-time position – even for a couple of months – would offer much-needed relief for a stressed-out working parent.

Keep in mind, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act also provides for paid expanded family and medical leave in certain child care circumstances. A temporary absence may alleviate pressure and provide an employee with the time needed to find an alternative care solution.

4. Offer resources.

Now’s the time to promote Employee Assistance Programs – or to consider offering this resource. Gentle coaching may be just what an employee needs to make it through a tough transition this fall. Counseling is also available at no charge through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; visit the COVID-19 resources page on WisCheeseMakers.org for a free, printable poster highlighting the hotline.

In some states, there’s also support specifically for essential workers seeking child care. In Wisconsin, visit ChildCareFinder.Wisconsin.gov to learn more. Simply posting information about these services in a breakroom can be a benefit.

5. Demonstrate emotional intelligence.

Create an environment in which employees feel safe expressing their concerns and asking questions, and take the time to offer compassion and clarity in responses. People leave jobs because of “bad bosses,” but they stay in jobs because of strong, empathetic, adaptable leaders, too. Long after the pandemic has passed, people will remember how their employers cared for them in this moment of crisis.

There’s no way to pandemic-proof a workforce under pressure both on the job and at home. But, a few changes can help an employer rise above the rest – and retain more of its essential and critical staff, even as child care disruptions persist.