Florida State just barred many employees from caring for kids while working remotely

Jenny Root is used to receiving emails about the coronavirus from Florida State University: They come every few days, updating employees on the latest travel advice and estimates for when campus might reopen.

When the Friday afternoon email arrived, Root, who has a 7-month-old daughter, was pumping. Phone in one hand, she scrolled until an unfamiliar subhead caught her attention: “Remote Work Update.”

“In March 2020, the University communicated a temporary exception to policy which allowed employees to care for children at home while on the Temporary Remote Work agreement,” the email read. “Effective, August 7, 2020, the University will return to normal policy and will no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely.”

Root, an assistant professor of special education, struggled to parse the “bizarre” message she was reading. It just didn’t make sense, she said: Throughout coronavirus, her boss had been extremely supportive, encouraging Root as she juggled her usual workload with child care for her baby and 4-year-old son, all while applying for tenure. Now the school seemed to be saying that employees couldn’t juggle anymore: Do your work, or watch your children. You cannot do both.

“My initial thought was, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do with [my kids]?” said Root. While her son’s day care had opened up for a few weeks, it closed down again when one of the providers came into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. With covid-19 cases surging across Florida — cases in the state have increased fivefold in the last two weeks — Root wasn’t sure she’d want to put her kids in day care, even if she could. She hasn’t particularly enjoyed the last few months, trying to work at home with her kids, but it feels like the only option.

“None of us are enjoying this,” Root said. “It makes me feel like I’m failing at everything I do.” The university, she said, is “acting like they gave us this privilege to watch our children while we worked — when that’s literally what I had to do.”

When coronavirus hit, companies scrambled to adjust their policies around remote work and child care: With schools and day cares closed, and nonessential employees working from home, many employers realized that they could no longer demand the full attention of their employees during working hours. They would have to be flexible. But now some of that flexibility may be coming to an end. As the school gears up to reopen in the fall, Florida State announced Friday that many employees will have to develop alternative plans for child care.

“As FSU looks toward resuming normal campus operations — as conditions allow — we felt a responsibility to provide our employees notice of our intention to return to our standard telecommuting agreement that requires dependent or child-care arrangements while working remotely,” Renisha Gibbs, associate vice president for human resources at FSU, wrote in a statement provided to The Lily. “If employees do not have day care options or choose not to send their children to school in the fall, they should work with their supervisors to identify a flexible work schedule that allows them to fulfill their work duties and their family responsibilities.”

This policy change will almost certainly impact female employees at FSU more than their male colleagues, forcing some to step back at work or perhaps quit altogether. It’s a situation that has played out, again and again, throughout the pandemic: When families aren’t able to find other forms of child care — or don’t feel comfortable sending their kids outside of the home every day, exposing them to possible infection — women are more likely to make a professional sacrifice, said Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist who studies gender and families at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Even in the most egalitarian-meaning households, the domestic sphere will still fall primarily on women’s shoulders,” Collins said.

Journalists and academics called out Florida State on Twitter, highlighting the sexist nature of the new policy. Images of Friday’s email, initially shared by professors, quickly spread on social media.

Florida State followed up on Monday afternoon with a new email, offering additional information about the policy change. They specified that the policy only “applies to employees whose job duties require them to be on campus full-time during normal business hours,” and specifically excludes professors.

Some FSU employees say this makes things worse, targeting only employees who don’t have the job security of tenured professors. The university has not provided a full list of the positions exempt from the policy. Multiple tenure-track professors could not say for sure whether the new policy applies to them.

“Due, I imagine to the way this has gone viral on social media … a slight retraction was issued today, which actually only compounds the initial problem,” Cathy McClive, a history professor at FSU, wrote in an email. “The policy now applies to staff not faculty — so those without tenure are in the most precarious positions.”

When she received the email, one administrative employee said she read it “at least half a dozen times.” She couldn’t believe it, she said: Even with a toddler at home, she says, she has been able to fulfill her work responsibilities “100 percent” throughout the pandemic. Her job includes responding to emails from students about course sign-ups and waitlists, and uploading information to the departmental website — all things she can do from home. (The employee asked to remain anonymous to avoid potential backlash from her employer.)

“There has been no lapse in the kind of support my students need,” she said. “It’s not reasonable to say you can’t keep your kid and work at the same time. They’re reverting back to normal policies when life is not normal yet.”

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