Joe Richardson: Should employers offer more support for working parents?

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, working parents have been hit with a tidal wave of household pressures. However, for single parents, Coronavirus came without a lifejacket. While working couples have been able to ‘shift parent’ while their children haven’t been in school, single parents – from the very beginning – have had to be the sole breadwinner, teacher, parent and playmate simultaneously. For many single parents, maintaining all of these roles has felt like treading water, and with lockdown measures expected to last for a good while yet, they are still some way away from the shore.

Early evidence shows that single parents have already fallen victim to muddier waters than the wider population. Single parents are more likely to work in ‘locked down sectors’ such as hospitality and retail and, as sole carers for their children, have felt the closure of childcare and schools more acutely than couples. Consequently, the Tackling single parent poverty after the Coronavirus report from Gingerbread, Learning and Work Institute and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published December 2020, found that 10% of working single parents have lost their job during the pandemic, while a third (30%) have been placed on the Job Retention Scheme (furlough) since March 2020, compared to a fifth (21%) of couple parents and 23% of those without children.

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In some of these cases, the outcome will have been unavoidable. Large amounts of single parents have been forced to choose between going to work and leaving young children at home, or staying at home and losing their jobs – a one-way route into unemployment.

However, that does not mean employers are powerless when it comes to supporting single parents to stay in work. In fact, some flexibility goes a long way. For instance, with home-schooling taking up most of the day, single parents have found sticking to usual working hours all but impossible. Instead, many have taken to working evenings and weekends to fill the void. While this is by no means a long-term solution, employers should aim to make this period as seamless as possible by allowing these parents to fulfil working responsibilities according to their own schedule, even if that deviates from regular contracted hours.

Furthermore, it is crucial that employers are realistic when it comes to targets, objectives and expectations. At Gingerbread, we know first-hand that single parents have gone above and beyond when it comes to maintaining usual levels of productivity. Be that as it may, it is unrealistic to expect business as usual when this group is balancing so many competing priorities, particularly if Coronavirus burnout is to be avoided. Single parents are a valuable part of the workforce and it’s important that employers do what they can to support them through these tough times.

Joe Richardson is research and policy officer at Gingerbread, the charity for single parent families