Following the Generation 2004 petition for special leave for parents, and at Generation 2004’s specific request, 3 June 2020 DG HR organised a social dialogue (SD) meeting to discuss the difficult situation of colleagues who are struggling to cope with this no-school and no-childcare situation over this extended period.
Parents with small children are under pressure as they have to care for, entertain and home school their children, while complying with their professional duties at 100%. It is impossible to have a work-life balance in these circumstances. Most of our colleagues have now been working from home for three months, and the longer it continues, the higher the risk of burnout and other psychological health issues.
At the SD meeting, DG HR and other trade unions praised Generation 2004 for putting forward the initiative. They acknowledged the impact of this issue largely due to the impressive number of colleagues (2090 in total) who signed the petition.
Based on complaints brought to Generation 2004, we presented our arguments during the social dialogue, which were related to:
- Psychological effects
Psychologists in our institution have raised concerns about the psychological effects of the confinement not only on adults but also on children (see video (in French) on EU Learn at 56 minutes and 54 seconds). They particularly need more care and nurturing by their parents to avoid any consequences on their psychological well-being.
- Guidance on teleworking
Even though DG HR recognised that teleworking with children puts an additional challenge on our colleagues, it did not offer any concrete measures or instruments to manage this situation and alleviate the burden for parents of young(er) children. Unfortunately, guidance provided by the Commission does not help. In addition, many managers continue to consider this situation as “business as usual” without much understanding of what parents are going through.
- Home schooling
Along with the normal parental duties of care and upbringing, parents were suddenly faced with having to home school their children or heavily assist them in their learning. Some schools have opened but others have not, or are only partially open.
Regarding the European Schools in Brussels, which teach many children of Commission staff members, they have partially reopened but on a “voluntary” basis. The voluntary nature of the return is problematic and brings added stress to parents, who now must be the ones deciding whether it is safe or not for their children to go to school during a pandemic. These are decisions that should be the responsibility of political authorities and not of parents or the public in general.
A further source of stress is that the online schooling ended with the partial reopening of the schools: this carries a high risk of leaving those children who will not attend the in situ classes behind. Many parents did not send their children to school due to underlying health conditions either of their children, themselves or another family member living under the same roof. Generation 2004 requested that the Commission, as a member of the board of governors of the European Schools, put pressure on the schools to ensure teaching support for those children for as long as in situ teaching and learning remains voluntary.
The availability of school bus services for the European Schools, or lack thereof, was also discussed. This would cause problems for parents living at distance from the schools or those who do not have a car. Meanwhile, though, we are aware that at least two of the Brussels European Schools parent associations are offering a bus service. However, this brings further concerns and issues for parents. Schools have partially reopened with a “silo” isolation policy where children from one class will not mix with children from other classes. Mixing children in the bus will break any “silo” system, which we believe will be reason enough for parents not allowing their children to use the school bus. This then leads us back to the original issue of parents having to commute by car to the school, or using public transportation with, in some cases, a considerable amount of time to do so, thus reducing their useful working time or lengthening their day even further.
- Upcoming summer period
It is also uncertain what exactly will happen during summer time. Travelling restrictions are still in place and our colleagues cannot be sure whether they will be able to go back to their home countries, where they could get some help with childcare from their close families. For others travelling is not an option, as they do not want to risk the health and lives of their families. Generation 2004 reminds the Commission that travelling hugely increases the risks of the contagion. At the same time, it is possible that no summer camps will be offered this year.
We fear that many colleagues are at the edge of collapse and may not resist another three months under the current circumstances. We thus believe that granting this special leave would prevent burnout and possible long-term health consequences for a large group of staff and implementing the leave would be a win-win situation for both the institution and colleagues, as it will:
- prevent them from falling sick,
- maintain their sanity and
- provide the necessary care for their children.
On the other hand, the Commission will avoid the unnecessary increase of long-term absence due to health conditions. These exceptional circumstances require a pragmatic solution in order to show that the Commission really cares about the health and well-being of its staff.
When should be parents eligible for the special leave?
While return to school remains voluntary, parents choosing to keep their children at home should be eligible for special leave.
All parents of young children attending school should also:
- have the possibility to apply for special leave for the days where there are no in situ classes (European Schools are only operating four days a week).
- be eligible to up to 25% of the workday in special leave on the days the school is operating. This should be the case for as long as there are no after school childcare services because parents are still the main care providers during half of the day (European Schools are only operating at 50% of normal time).
These rules should also be kept on hand for any future closure events: if we return to a full lock-down situation or if any school or childcare facilities are not able to provide a service for any reason, parents affected should be able to use this special leave for up to 50% of the workweek from day 1 of the event.
This leave should also cover situations where:
- one parent works and the other studies, and where
- without young children, a family hosts and takes care of a particularly vulnerable or elderly family member.
Even our social dialogue peers acknowledged that a very large numbers of colleagues must be in a very difficult situation. They gave additional ideas such as that of offering teleworking to colleagues from home countries during the summer period. They also pointed out that ideally managers should show a maximum of flexibility in these circumstances.
The meeting ended with an offer from DG HR to come back to us soon with their analysis of the requests and whether this special leave could be implemented and, if so, how. Watch this space!