As Floridians set out buying storm supplies ahead of Tropical Storm Isaac's arrival recently, one announcement created almost as much panic as the threat of high winds: Public schools would close.
For working parents, the news triggered a mad scramble for child care solutions, particularly when most businesses chose to stay open. Trapped, some parents were forced to take a vacation or sick day. Others showed up at work with kids in tow, while the desperate begged relatives or babysitters to step in at the last minute.
Across the country, hundreds of companies boast of being family-friendly workplaces. But to me, days like that speak volumes about the reality of that label. For parents, it's not only how our employers react to our need for accommodation during weather-related events; it's also how well they've planned for it.
As news of Isaac circulated, top managers at C3/CustomerContactChannels in Plantation held meetings to prepare for various scenarios. Supervisors were told to allow employees to work from home when possible and encourage staff to download documents to their laptop hard drives to be able to work on them even without an Internet connection. Even more, the company, which operates call centers around the world, began brainstorming ways that hourly workers could make up time off for weather-related office closures.
With storm season in full swing and weather-related shutdowns nationwide more common, there's an even greater need for good planning.
Nationwide, parents are discovering school districts are closing more often, hesitant to take chances with student safety and fearful of lawsuits. At the same time, the recession has led businesses to cut back on employee benefits that help with disaster preparedness. Only 32 percent of organizations now allow employees to bring their children to work in a child care emergency, while 17 percent offer a child care referral service and 3 percent provide access to backup child care, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey of 550 employers.
Working mother Aida Segui-Luciano says she accepts that planning for last-minute school closings is her responsibility. Segui-Luciano works in retail services at Tropical Financial Credit Union in Hollywood. Knowing she can't do her job from home or bring kids to the bank, she saves a few days in her paid-time-off bank as a precaution for storm season. "My manager is understanding that I have a family and have to take care of my family. I said I was taking the day off and he said, 'Not a problem; see you tomorrow.' "
Of course, some parents don't plan and don't have accommodations at work. Backed against a wall, they drop their kids off unsupervised at libraries, malls and movie theaters that are open for the day. Others leave their kids home alone.
If the home-alone option is your backup plan, prepare your children for how to handle emergencies and potential danger, parenting experts say.
If you're going to work from home, keeping young kids entertained takes planning, too. Janice Lusky Greenspan, a Miami public relationships account executive, pulled out a special bin with activities to keep her boys busy and prevent the need to lock herself in the bathroom to make a work-related phone call. The bin held items such as crossword puzzles, model airplane kits, comic books and dollar-store toys for her two sons, 6 and 9.
Remote workers say it's days like this when the flexibility of their jobs pay off. A South Florida sales representative for Microsoft, Stephanie Kleiner says she had the technology in place and a boss with the right mind-set to cope with the last-minute school closings. Kleiner says her manager quickly granted her request to stay off the roads and at home with her kids. "Mobile workers are always thinking ahead," she said. "We're used to managing and making do. We looked at it as a great day to catch up with desk work."