By Reon Janse van Rensburg
Since the beginning of the national lockdown, parents suddenly and unexpectedly have had to start taking on various additional tasks all at the same time. In addition to fulfilling their normal work duties, parents also had to support their children to master the new virtual way of learning, and in some cases they also had to stand in as teachers to help their children master their school work, while they also had to perform additional household chores that would otherwise have been handled by a childminder or cleaning lady. These unusual events heightened tensions in many households and families and contributed to working parents being overwhelmed and exhausted.
In the meantime, the schools have reopened, but because schools are not functioning fully and all learners are not allowed to attend school at the same time, most schools introduced a rotation system according to which children attend school every other week to receive schooling. As a result, there are parents who have asked their employers whether some of their duties can be temporarily suspended during this period as they still have to work from home on a temporary basis to look after their children. The question that arises is whether their colleagues, who do not have children themselves, or who are not responsible for school-going children, should take over some of these duties. Is it fair to expect this of them?
This challenge obviously causes heightened tension between working parents and their childless colleagues. One thing is certain though – now, more than ever the workplace and the labour force need strong leadership to defuse this difficult situation and to come up with a clear set of rules on how the situation can be managed.
With many companies having already indicated that they will allow their employees to work from home temporarily and even permanently, and with the uncertainty about when children will be allowed to go back to school on a full-time and permanent basis, we need a long-term plan that will not only enable parents to survive but to also thrive in their work.
The Covid-19 pandemic caught the world off-guard. The infrastructure that is needed to perform our daily tasks in the midst of a pandemic is not available to everyone. Companies cannot penalise working parents for not being able to fulfil their duties at work, but neither can they expect other employees to be overloaded with work that did not previously form part of their responsibilities. At the same time, the company cannot suffer as a result. So, who bears the responsibility?
This unresolved question arises precisely because there are as yet no formalised policies or regulations in place in most companies that provide clarity on what employees should expect in this case. It is this very ambiguity that creates room for internal tension between colleagues that lowers productivity and increases instability in the workplace.
According to Phil Davel, a labour law advisor at Solidarity, labour legislation contains certain basic rights that working parents enjoy.
He mentions that one must first keep in mind that the definition of a child is a person who is younger than 18 years (section 1 of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act).
Some of the provisions in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) that apply specifically to working parents, include the following:
- Parents of children are entitled to three (3) days’ family responsibility leave per year when their child is ill. (section 27)
- In determining your working hours, the employer must give due consideration to your family responsibilities. (section 7)
- Employees who are pregnant have four (4) months’ maternity leave (section 25), employees who have become parents of a child have ten (10) days’ parental leave (section 25A), employees who adopt a child have 10 consecutive weeks of adoption leave, or 10 days’ parental leave (section 25B), and employees who become parents by a surrogate agreement have ten (10) consecutive weeks’ commissioning parental leave, or 10 days’ parental leave (section 25C).
Moreover, section 6 of the Employment Equity Act stipulates that no employee may be discriminated against, be it directly or indirectly, on the basis of parental responsibility.
Davel is also of the opinion that, in addition to legislation, an employer can also have its own internal policy on family responsibility and leave the employer offers to employees in good faith. However, the Act does not oblige an employer to make any extraordinary exceptions.
The challenge for employers, therefore, is to still treat everyone equitably and, for example, to make provision for employees who are bearing the burden of an additional workload caused by the absence of working parents.
The pandemic has meant that the virtual workplace, which was only talked about as something that might lie ahead somewhere in the future has become a reality that we are facing right now. The pandemic also caused employees to experience more stress and anxiety in general. It is the role of any good employer and manager to equip employees to be able to tackle and overcome any challenge that may come their way during this period, as well as in the future.
Businesses that are unable to overcome this challenge may lose some of their best employees in the future, either due to domestic responsibilities or to businesses that can better manage this challenge and are able to provide solutions to problems such as these and others that their employees have to deal with.
Examples of policies companies have implemented to overcome this problem:
- PwC has shortened meetings by 25% and implemented “no video” Fridays so parents can focus on assisting their children with their schoolwork and enable other employees to catch up with other work.
- PwC has also rolled out a new benefits package for working parents that includes the ability to work according to a reduced schedule, to take a sabbatical and it even allows for the possibility of sharing jobs with a colleague where such jobs were usually done by one person.
- Some companies have also arranged affordable supervision and care for their employees’ children during this period, which is at the disposal of all employees.
- There are also companies that have shortened their work week to ensure that working parents can also fulfil their other duties.
We are all in the same storm; everyone’s boat is different though. By working together on finding solutions we can ensure that we do not sink each other’s boats.