Kimber Adams, who lost her job as a bartender at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, with her son, Asa, in Tacoma, Wash., on Aug. 26, 2020. As companies reconsider their long-term need to have employees on site, low-wage workers depending on office-based businesses stand to lose the most. (Chona Kasinger/The New York Times)
OAKLAND, Calif. — When the coronavirus closed schools and child care centers and turned American parenthood into a multitasking nightmare, many tech companies rushed to help their employees. They used their comfortable profit margins to extend workers new benefits, including extra time off for parents to help them care for their children.
It wasn’t long before employees without children started to ask: What about us?
At a recent companywide meeting, Facebook employees repeatedly argued that work policies created in response to COVID-19 “have primarily benefited parents.” At Twitter, a fight erupted on an internal message board after a worker who didn’t have children at home accused another employee, who was taking a leave to care for a child, of not pulling his weight.
When Salesforce announced that it was offering parents six weeks of paid time off, most employees applauded. But one Salesforce manager, who is not permitted to talk publicly about internal matters and therefore asked not to be identified, said two childless employees, reflecting a sentiment voiced at several companies, complained that the policy seemed to put parents’ needs before theirs.
As companies wrestle with how best to support staff during the pandemic, some employees without children say that they feel underappreciated, and that they are being asked to shoulder a heavier workload. And parents are frustrated that their childless co-workers don’t understand how hard it is to balance work and child care, especially when day care centers are closed and they are trying to help their children learn at home.
The divide is more pronounced at some technology companies, where workers tend to be younger and have come to expect generous perks and benefits in exchange for letting their jobs take over their lives. Tech companies were among the first to ask employees to work from home at the start of the pandemic, and to offer generous leave and additional time off once it became apparent that children would remain home from school as well.
The tension between parents and nonparents has been most vividly displayed at Facebook.
In March, Facebook offered up to 10 weeks of paid time off for employees if they had to care for a child whose school or day care facility had closed or for an older relative whose nursing home was not open. Google and Microsoft extended similar paid leave to employees dealing with children at home or a sick relative.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive and a father of two, also said the company would not be scoring employees on job performance for the first half of 2020 because there was “so much change in our lives and our work.”
Every Facebook employee would receive bonus amounts usually reserved for very good performance scores, irking some childless employees who felt that those who worked more should be paid more.
When Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, hosted a companywide videoconference on Aug. 20, more than 2,000 employees voted to ask her what more Facebook could do to support nonparents, since its other policies had benefited parents.
The question struck a nerve. An employee wrote in comments accompanying the video feed that it was “unfair” that nonparents could not take advantage of the same leave policy afforded parents. Another wrote that while the procedure for taking leave was usually difficult, it was “easy breezy” for parents.
A parent responded in a note on her corporate Facebook page, visible only inside the company, that the question was “harmful” because it made parents feel negatively judged and that a child care leave was hardly a mental or physical health break.
“Please don’t make me and other parents at Facebook the outlet for your understandable frustration, exhaustion and anger in response to the hardships you’re experiencing due to COVID-19,” the parent wrote. Video of the meeting and screenshots of employee responses on internal message boards were shared with The New York Times.
Sandberg said she “disagreed with the premise of the question” that the leave policy and freeze on performance ratings were primarily benefiting parents. She added that larger-than-normal bonuses had been given to all employees and that everyone had received a $1,000 stipend to buy equipment for working from home.
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The employees persisted. In a written comment, one said more than 1,000 people agreed with the premise of the question and asked that Sandberg answer it again. She did, adding that Facebook has tried to design its leave policies to be “inclusive.”
“I do believe parents have certain challenges,” she said. “But everyone has challenges, and those challenges are very, very real.”
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Over the last few months, Facebook managers had to shut down discussions on internal forums singling out certain parents for not contributing, according to three members of the Facebook staff, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not permitted to discuss workplace issues with reporters.
With its offices scheduled to remain closed until at least October and schools restarting online in California, Facebook said in August that the leave policy would remain in place through June 2021 and that employees who had already taken some leave this year would be afforded another 10 weeks next year.
That angered some nonparents. A few wrote openly about how isolated they felt, living alone and not seeing anyone for weeks at a time. The company, they said, seemed less concerned about their needs.
Facebook said all employees could take up to three days to cope with physical or mental health issues without a doctor’s note. It separately offers 30 days of emergency leave for all employees if they need to care for a sick family member. In addition, all Facebook employees receive an unlimited number of sick days and receive at least 21 vacation days a year.
“We’ve added more support for all of our employees and encourage everyone to have open discussions about the challenges they’re facing,” said Liz Bourgeois, a company spokeswoman. “In too many workplaces, trying to hide the added difficulties of caregiving or well-being is yet another burden people have to carry, and we don’t want that to be the case at Facebook.”
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Resentment from employees without children about extra parental benefits existed at companies before the pandemic, of course. But the health crisis has amplified that tension. Parents who had normally been able to balance work and home are struggling to help their children learn remotely while still doing their jobs.
In a July survey of 1,700 people conducted by ZipRecruiter, a job-listing and recruiting sites, parents said that if schools did not reopen at all this fall, the number of hours they could work would be reduced. Mothers said their working hours would be reduced 9%, while fathers said their time would go down 5%.
It is a difficult situation for everyone, but “for people to get upset enough to say that ‘I feel this is unfair’ demonstrates a lack of patience, a lack of empathy and a sense of entitlement,” said Laszlo Bock, Google’s former head of people operations, or human resources. He is now the chief executive of the startup Humu, which aims to help companies manage employees more effectively.
At Twitter, where employees have unlimited days off, several workers went to the defense of the parent who was called out for taking a leave. Round-the-clock child care, they said, was not something they would do voluntarily.
The bickering went on. Another employee retorted that more parents took advantage of Twitter’s unlimited leave policies than nonparents. He did not provide data or any details to back up that claim.
A spokesman for Twitter declined to comment. A Salesforce spokeswoman also declined to comment.
Tension between parents and their childless co-workers may result from companies not doing a good job explaining that what benefits parents can benefit the entire workforce, said Erin Kelly, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Business, who studies workplace policies and management practices.
“A question that we might ask the employees who are feeling some frustration about their co-workers being on leave is what do you think is going to happen if that person quits?” she said. “You’re going to actually be stretched further.”