Here Come the Parents

With vaccines expanding to younger children, millions of parents may have greater flexibility to work longer and join projects. But are companies prepared? 

Perhaps you remember them: parents of grade-schoolers. Roughly 40 million of them have spent the last 19 months on a merry-go-round of child quarantines and school closures and COVID test lines. But they’re back! Many will likely return to the U.S. workforce upon the availability of the children’s COVID-19 vaccine.

The US Food and Drug Administration is set to meet on October 26 to consider approval of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for 28 million children, ages 5–11. Many of their parents have cut back on work or remained remote to provide childcare. Reports show that more than 300,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September alone; some were dealing with schools imposing quarantines for when a classmate tests positive, while others didn’t want to expose unvaccinated children to babysitters. Now that could change—and quickly.

But are companies paying attention? Experts say managers will need to do some serious reshuffling of assignments that may have excluded a busy parent who is now free, or address those who want to get back on the promotion track they have may have missed. Given the size of the parent population, the change may be noticeable if not jarring. Still, “I’m not sure organizations are thinking about this,” says Ron Porter, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise.

The statistics are one question. “I’m curious about the number of kids that will actually get the vaccine, and will there be some hesitancy from parents,” says Brian Bloom, vice president of global benefits at Korn Ferry. As of late July, a third of kids ages 12–17 were fully vaccinated, and just 25% of the youngest tweens, 12- and 13-year-olds, had received the two doses. A recent CBS poll found that 37% of parents plan to vaccinate their kids ages 5–11, and 26% say maybe.

The most pressing complication for firms is parents who have remained remote for childcare reasons. The vaccine removes that excuse and allows companies to be a bit more aggressive about returning to the office, says Porter. “But it puts companies in a tougher spot,” he says, “because they’re not only dealing with employees but with employees’ kids, who are the anchor keeping them home. It makes the company seem more coldhearted.”

For his part, Bloom says he expects more moms in the application pile, as well as more-productive parents. He says parents will benefit from no longer worrying about things like “I gotta get my kid tested” and “Oh no, she’s quarantined” and “What if he catches COVID at school?” “Parents worry about this all day and they shouldn’t have to,” he says. “Now they can bring their whole selves to work and actually focus on their work.”

Elise Freedman, organizational strategy and workforce transformation practice leader at Korn Ferry, says that companies need to continue looking for ways to better support parents because some are still facing extreme childcare shortages. Childcare workers are down to 88% of their former numbers, and tasks like finding a babysitter for a client dinner might not be feasible in some locales. This means many parents are either taking on more childcare themselves or paying substantially more than they did two years ago.

Parents of children who are too young to be vaccinated may well feel cornered and under even more pressure than before, Freedman says. “It does put a little more pressure on those folks,” she says, noting they may need additional support. Parents may also realize that they’ve missed out on promotions as they watch coworkers enjoying plump assignments. “It’s going to be imperative that organizations continue to ensure that nobody’s adversely impacted, regardless of where they’re working,” says Freedman—that includes opportunities for advancement and stretch assignments, as well as staying connected with teammates.