When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Scotiabank kicked the expansion of its existing childcare offering for employees into high gear.

“Given the bank has announced that anyone who’s working remotely will continue to do so until the end of 2020 minimum, we wanted to make sure we had some extra options available for employees since working remotely is now a prolonged phenomenon,” says Ayman Alvi, the bank’s director of global benefits.

Through an existing partnership, Scotiabank employees are guaranteed access to full- or part-time childcare spaces at Kids & Co.’s childcare centres across Canada. As of September, that support is expanding, with the bank now covering the cost of five backup days of childcare per child per year. It’s also funding a 10 per cent discount for full-time childcare and five per cent for part time.

Read: Women’s participation in labour force reaches lowest level in three decades: study

The idea to expand childcare provisions came from a regular review of offerings to support its employees who are parents, says Alvi, noting usage trends from Kids & Co. indicated employees were taking advantage of the spaces. “Providing additional resources allows [employees] to work in an efficient way, but also still be present at home and attend to those needs. Everyone’s balancing competing priorities, so the more ways we can provide options to help support people in their home life, that’ll also translate into their work life as well.”

Parents are facing complex situations as many plans to reopen schools involve some combination of half days and virtual schooling. While daycares are reopening, they’re reducing their capacities. In this environment, employees are going to need all the employer support they can get.

Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says employers are starting to become aware of the work it will take to keep people with young children in the workforce. “Corporations that are interested in continuing to include women in the workforce or accommodate any parent who needs to pay attention to their children are going to have to come up with alternatives.”

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The pandemic plunged women’s participation in the labour force to its lowest point in 30 years, with 1.5 million women losing their jobs in the first two months of the crisis, according to a July report from the Royal Bank of Canada. In the following months, women have rebounded more slowly than men, which the report attributed to their dominance in sectors hit hard by the pandemic.

As well, the report noted women are more likely to fall out of the workforce as a result of the pandemic. Nearly half of women who lost their jobs between February and May and a third of those who lost them between February and June, were terminated and didn’t seek further work, “putting them at higher risk of long-term job separation and future wage penalties.”

This could, in part, be because newly unemployed women believe they’re unlikely to find new positions in troubled sectors, but the report highlighted the confusion around back-to-school season as another likely factor. “Given widespread uncertainty surrounding the format of children’s schooling in the fall (and the potential for a virtual/in-class blend), if mothers are unable to work remotely and have been laid off, they may hesitate to seek out new work while their child requires daytime supervision at home,” it said.

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This trend may not be limited to women who lost their jobs in the early months of the pandemic. “In the past few days, multiple friends (all women) have told me they are leaving their jobs indefinitely to care for their children who have no summer camps, no daycare and at best part-time school in the fall,” wrote Estair Van Wagner, professor at Osgoode Hall Law School’s Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic, on Twitter in July. “I have cried, having watched them work to be where they are now.”

Kaplan has also heard anecdotally of similar stories of women choosing to quit their jobs because they simply can’t manage the stresses of working and childcare or schooling responsibilities at the same time. But there are still levers employers can pull to support and retain employees, such as being flexible with scheduling or temporarily bringing them down to part-time work.

Two of Kaplan’s employees with small children at home work non-traditional hours or start late on weekdays and do catch-up hours on the weekend to accommodate their new childcare constraints. “Even if people can’t work from home and the workers are required to come into work, being much more thoughtful about [scheduling] — if you have an hourly worker and they really need to come in at 10:30 a.m. because that’s when the grandparents come over to take care of the kids, then you need to create a schedule that allows that worker to come in at 10:30 a.m. as opposed to 9 a.m.”

Read: Will the four-day workweek become the norm post-coronavirus?

Scotiabank also has a flexible working policy and has run multiple webinars over the summer on aspects of parenting during the pandemic.

However, Kaplan acknowledges there are some at-home pandemic realities employers can’t overcome with flexible scheduling. “It could be that, no matter how flexible you are with work, you’re never going to be able to accommodate the responsibilities someone has at home. If they have three kids, all of them under 10, all of them are in home-schooling of some sort, it’s going to be very hard for someone to maintain a full-time job while they’re doing that.”

She suggests employers that may be faced with employees unexpectedly tendering their resignations could ask whether it’s related to concerns about schooling and childcare — and, if so, offer a solution. “At large corporations, that’s much easier because you can find someone to backstop, but to an extent, employers can do that, offering some kind of COVID sabbatical where [the employee] goes on leave . . . but has the option to reapply for their job six months from now.”

Read: Survey shows strong support for flexible, remote working post-coronavirus

Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute for the Family, says employers may start experimenting with onsite childcare programs. “It wasn’t that long ago [employers] used to run summer programs when camps weren’t available or before- and after-camp daycare. If a summer camp ran from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., there’d be a program at the workplace from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.”

Kaplan says this could be a viable option, particularly for large employers or those with offices in major skyscrapers that house hundreds of workers. “It’s definitely something that employers are going to have to start to consider. It will be unaffordable to do that for small and medium-sized employers, but the largest employers will consider this.”

However, she notes, less than 10 per cent of Canada’s private sector workforce works for a large organization. “While large corporations might have the flexibility to subsidize childcare or create onsite options, most people . . . are employed by small- and medium-sized employers. Those employers may be much less able to do those kinds of things.”

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One employer offering these options is the University of Toronto, through its family care office. “U of T has several childcare options on all three campuses and children of staff, faculty, librarians and students are given priority,” said Francesca Dobbin, director of family programs and services at the university, in an email to Benefits Canada.

“Similar to pre-pandemic times, the university encourages those interested to enrol early as spaces are limited and there is a waitlist. Campus childcare services began re-opening in August and we plan to be operating by September at the optimal capacity permitted under the local public health COVID requirements.”

Employers could also turn to childcare subsidies for employees as part of their benefits package, like Scotiabank does. “That would allow people to afford to get the childcare they need so they can give their full self to work,” Kaplan says.

Read: U of T focusing on employee work-life balance with family-friendly benefits