Joelene Green has a new office mate: 9-year-old daughter Abby.
Green is an office/accounting assistant for the Port of Skagit, and Abby is a fourth-grade student at Island View Elementary in Anacortes. Once a week, Abby will participate in online classes from her mother’s office west of Burlington.
The port recently adopted a policy to allow some employees to bring their children to work. The goal is to help parents struggling to manage their jobs and remote schooling, said Patsy Martin, the port’s executive director.
“Families are bearing the brunt of this, and when they can’t send children to school, they get really stuck,” she said.
The policy is one tool employers in Skagit County are using to offer more flexibility to working parents.
Green said she panicked when the Anacortes School District announced school would start with at-home learning this fall. Though she can work from home, she needs to go into the office sometimes. Her husband can’t work exclusively from home either.
“When (the port) offered this, it was a huge relief,” she said.
Parents are feeling new pressures as they juggle jobs and kids.
“The biggest thing I have felt is that the amount of responsibility has increased,” Green said. “Now I’m a mom, wife, a home caregiver, a teacher and tutor.”
The port modeled its bring-your-child-to-work policy after one adopted by the city of Mount Vernon.
“We anticipate there are just a handful of staff who may use this, but we felt it was an important option,” said Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau.
She said employees also may work altered hours, or take vacation or federal leave to spend time with their families.
Some private businesses are also making adjustments to support personnel with children.
Mount Vernon manufacturer Goodwinds Composites has purchased laptops and set up a virtual private network for employees with kids to work at home, co-owner Amelia Cook wrote in an email.
“None of our production personnel have children, so we haven’t had to look at accommodations for those in the physical manufacturing plant, only at the administrative level,” she said.
Cook said the last thing the company wants to do is make employees choose between their children and their jobs.
“We will do what we can, for as long as we can, to keep the business running smoothly with everyone working,” she wrote.
Janicki Industries is providing flexible schedules and expanding use its leaves of absence. It’s also allowing employees to use company printers for school materials, said Steven Lynn, director of marketing for Janicki.
In Stanwood, attorney Dale Wagner has hired a tutor and rented a space for his employees’ school-age children to go to three days a week for remote learning assignments while their parents work.
“We’re forced to make some hard choices, and there is no good solution,” said Wagner, who specializes in disability and workers’ compensation issues. “What are you going to do with working parents who have to choose between working and their students? It’s a complicated issue.”
The employees’ school-age children gather at the South Camano Grange and use cellular hot spots to connect to the internet to complete classwork. Wagner has also invested in a cell signal booster for the building.
“I need my employees here, so if this is what it takes, then I’ll help any way I can,” he said. “There are some things that can be done remotely, but not many. I don’t want my employees to be short a paycheck, but I also want to run a business.”
In La Conner, the Museum of Northwest Art (MoNA) restructured its education department to provide more flexibility to employees.
As MoNA’s full-time education director, Ellie Cross found she had fewer child care options for her 16-month-old daughter and could not rely on her mother-in-law to babysit due to concerns about spreading COVID-19.
To help, MoNA created a new position — community outreach coordinator — to allow Cross to work fewer hours, and then reallocated some of her duties to two other staff members.
“I feel fortunate as a family we were able to afford me taking a pay cut, and my workplace was willing to work with me,” she said.
Cross said the current challenges exacerbate issues such the wage gap between male and female workers. When parents decide who stays home with the kids, it is often mothers who have to give up their jobs if their incomes are lower, she said.
John Sternlicht, CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County, said another reason more women may leave the workforce is because of societal pressure to be caregivers for their families.
“Employers need to recognize that fathers are parents the same as mothers, and it does not automatically fall on the mother to be responsible for what happens to the children,” he said.
Sternlicht said companies can help by offering flexible hours and exploring bring-your-kid-to-work policies or on-site child care.
“The best-case scenario for someone who has children at home is that the parents are able to work remotely, and they can all be in the same physical space,” Sternlicht said.
But that isn’t always possible for jobs that don’t involve sitting at a computer.
Even in situations with both parents working from home, there are challenges such as technology and online access, Sternlicht said.
He has heard from families who find that poor internet connections make it difficult to do remote work and learning under one roof.
Israel Arreola, a Sedro-Woolley High School sophomore, said it’s impossible for two people to use Wi-Fi at the same time in his home.
He goes to the Helping Hands Solution Center, where he volunteers, to use its Wi-Fi while school is in session so a sibling can work at home. Yet, traveling to Wi-Fi isn’t an option for everyone.
“Some families only have one car, and that’s for the parents going to work,” Arreola said.
He is increasingly concerned about how others are managing.
“I’ve been worrying about the Hispanic community going through this,” he said. “They don’t have fair access to Wi-Fi.”
Concrete district helping out
East Skagit County has long had inconsistent internet access, so the Concrete School District arranged for small groups of students to attend in-person remote learning centers. There, they get access and help from district staff, Superintendent Wayne Barrett said.
“The intent is to give as much access as we can to the internet,” he said. “We are unique — we have areas where we have nothing.”
In cooperation with community partners, the district has set up remote learning sites at the Marblemount Community Hall, Rockport Bald Eagle Interpretive Center and Skagit County Fire District 10’s Birdsview Fire Station.
“We’ve got to have some place for our kids to go to keep learning,” said Fire District 10 Chief Rod Coffell. “We’re a community; we’ve got to take care of each other.”
The district also will set up a learning site on its own campus, Barrett said.
Each site will be staffed by district employees trained in the online learning platform and in health and safety protocols, he said.
For now, parents can register their children for one two-hour session per day. The district has purchased an additional 40 internet hot spots to lend out to families, but that still isn’t enough, Barrett said.