US campus reinstates bar on looking after children while working

Florida State University’s move triggers concern about impact on female employees, as coronavirus continues to spread

July 1, 2020
Woman using laptop while daughter and dog sleep
Source: iStock

Florida State University will prohibit its employees from taking care of their children while working remotely, calling it a necessary step toward returning to normal operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, FSU said that the rule has been its normal policy, and one that it will reinstate in August once schools near its campus in the state capital of Tallahassee reopen.

“This is a common requirement while working remotely and is typical of other universities in Florida and around the country,” Renisha Gibbs, FSU’s associate vice-president for human resources, said.

The plan, however, has been attracting criticism on social media from academics at FSU and elsewhere who regard the requirement as unreasonable and likely to have the biggest impact on women.

“Throughout history, parenting has been a job that one does while doing other work,” said one of the critics, Shaindel Beers, an instructor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Oregon. “FSU is not understanding that people can work and parent at the same time.”

Ms Beers said that she learned of the FSU policy through a Facebook group for women in academia, and her own criticism of it on Twitter has drawn dozens of like-minded comments.

At Blue Mountain Community College, by comparison, an employee advisory cited by Ms Beers specifically asks workers to understand the unique nature of the moment and to pay extra attention to protecting their physical, mental and emotional health.

“You are not ‘working from home’, you are ‘at your home, during a crisis, trying to work’,” the community college’s pandemic policy states.

In its response to questions about the policy, FSU said that it affects about 70 per cent of its 6,000 full-time staff. Few of them are academics, however, since the policy banning the care of children while working at home only applies to those who do not typically do some of their work remotely, FSU explained.

The temporary waiver of that policy during this spring and summer, Ms Gibbs said, was granted “in part to support our employees – many of whom are parents of school-age children”.

Even after schools reopen in the Tallahassee area on 10 August, she said, employees who need waivers of the requirement can request them from their supervisors.

The position, Ms Beers said, suggested a failure by FSU to understand that people can work and serve as parents at the same time.

“I can log my child on to online school, grade essays while he does his school work, take a break and make him lunch, and then write lectures from home,” she said. “It’s sad that FSU is trying to commodify both teaching and parenting.”

A recent analysis of research on the matter, published by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, suggested that workers forced into home environments by the coronavirus are responding in a variety of ways, both positive and negative.

With regard to parenting, however, the analysis cited findings that at-home workers with additional responsibilities, such as “walking a dog or caring for children after school, had stronger work-home boundaries than those only accountable to themselves”.

The question for FSU may yet be decided by other factors. With many Americans refusing to take recommended precautions, coronavirus cases are surging in many parts of the US, including Florida and the Tallahassee region, putting in doubt plans for the further reopening of activities that involve large gatherings of people.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

This comes down to basic equality, men are equally included from what I see, therefor it's down to individual choice, I'm parenting or I'm working.

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