Since the start of the year in the United States, Facebook, Microsoft and Salesforce have introduced similar policies giving staff extensive leave – ranging from six to 12 weeks on top of existing leave entitlements – for caring responsibilities during the pandemic. In most cases this does not just apply to parents looking after children but to anyone with caring responsibilities. Yet, as The New York Times reports, that hasn’t stopped employees without children asking ‘what about us?’.
The newspaper reports that at a company-wide video conference last month, 2000 Facebook employees voted to ask chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg what the company could do to support non-parents, since its other policies had benefited parents. Facebook is reportedly paying maximum bonuses to all staff this year yet non-parents are unhappy that this does not reflect the extra effort they have put in.
There has been bickering between parents and non-parents over the workload on the internal message boards at Facebook. Ditto at Twitter, where all employees have unlimited leave – because parents have been using more of it this year. Salesforce, which has offered six weeks’ family care leave specifically to parents with children, also has childless employees arcing up.
The reaction to The New York Times article on social media was passionate. Many non-parents genuinely feel they are being asked to pick up the slack for colleagues with children during the pandemic while their own needs are ignored. There was also a strong sense of parents having made their choice to have children and now needing to suck it up.
The last thing we need is to pit parents against non-parents in the workplace.
The underlying tension has been there for a while, of course, but it is exacerbated by the pandemic, especially in the US where the coronavirus has run rampant and there is a much stronger sense of individual versus collective entitlement.
But it’s not wholly foreign to Australia. Schools were closed for most of first and second term in NSW and much of the year in Victoria. It’s been a tricky year for caring for our elders as well, with multiple outbreaks in nursing homes particularly in Victoria, and many elderly people delaying entry to aged care or exiting to stay with family.
The pandemic is really hard for everyone in multiple and different ways. I’m sympathetic to parents dealing with remote learning, but also to single people who live alone grappling with loneliness.
A workplace relationship is by definition transactional and there needs to be quid pro quo.
If a non-parent is being asked to “pick up the slack” on a prolonged basis, that’s not OK. If they feel they’re carrying the load of other team members beyond the point of being reasonable, they are within their rights to push back and say “no” or demand to be rewarded commensurate with that extra effort.
Generally this does happen naturally – there is plenty of empirical evidence that people without caring responsibilities are promoted faster and given more pay rises than those without. That’s why they say working mothers are on the “mummy track”.
But the question of whether non-parents should be expected to do extra work is different to whether they are right to be mad if they’re doing the same work they always did, while parents are given special allowances during the pandemic. Actively complaining because you think working parents are being given too many privileges to deal with a tough situation is misconstruing what’s really going on.
What these disgruntled employees are missing is that leave for genuine care-giving responsibilities is not a job perk, it’s a management issue. Employers need to retain their skilled workforce and that means understanding that employees are humans with needs outside work.
Non-parents may eventually benefit from these policies if they one day become parents but even the proudly child-free do need other people to be willing to have children. They will be old one day and probably enjoy benefits funded by younger taxpayers. Even if they are fully self-funded in retirement, younger people will be their doctors, nurses, chefs, road engineers, shop assistants and so on.
Globally we need to stem population growth but even so, a society without children is unsustainable. We still need children and we need that younger generation growing up to be happy, healthy and productive.
Many of these employers have done the right thing by including all caring responsibilities and explicitly stating it also applies to caring for elderly or sick relatives as well.
People usually (though not always) choose whether or not to have children but humans caring for other humans is not a fringe choice. It’s what makes the world go around.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer covering social affairs.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.
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