Kids, career and now the coronavirus

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Kids, career and now the coronavirus

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Students are studying at arm’s length at Donggyo Elementary School in Mapo District, western Seoul, last Friday after the government offered “emergency child care” to take the burden off of working parents. [NEWS 1]

For some parents, social distancing can be a nightmare, as many are left to deal with the double challenge of school closures and remote work.

A mother of an 8-year-old son found it impossible to juggle telecommuting and child care, so she organized a solution, gathering together four working mothers to share the burden of parenting.

Each person takes turns taking care of all the children so the other mothers can work.

“Before, the only thing I could do for my son is turn on a TV show or keep him distracted with my smartphone. I feel better as a mom to see my son hang out with other kids. It has made everything much easier,” said the mother of a 4-year-old.

Some become virtual refugees.

They will go to the homes of relatives who do not work - laptop and child in tow - and punch in and let their family members take care of the kid.

One woman said she found it impossible to work and take care of her 5-year-old, so she makes a break for the house of her stay-at-home-mom sister and gets down to work.

“Some people think remote workers loaf around, but that’s really not the case. It’s a big misunderstanding,” she said.

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The government is endeavoring to help out.

Its latest is the family care vacation, where workers can take a maximum of 10 days off for their family members, including children. They can only take one day at a time and can take no more than 10 days off every 90 days.

A number of existing benefits are available. One is the family care leave, which is 90 days of unpaid leave, but it is only allowed when a family member is injured, ill or old and in need of assistance.

Any parent with a child younger than 8 or in their second year of elementary school can apply for a shortened workweek in addition to one year of parental leave. Their working hours can be cut back by one to five hours a day for a year. If annual paid vacation is added into the equation, one to two months of so-called emergency parenting may be possible.

While a number of options are available, it’s still not easy for Korean working parents. The law allows companies to reject a request for family care leave. Parents also have to jump through hoops to get approval from their boss, which is required for taking the leave.

One family told the JoongAng Ilbo that family-oriented employee benefits are not an option for them, as they both work in retail. Time off could damage their careers.

When school openings were initially delayed by two weeks, they received help from their parents. But they are not sure how long they can ask their parents to do child care duty, as they are elderly. The couple does not know what they will do.

Another issue is money. Family care leave and vacation are unpaid, and a shortened workweek entails at least a 20 percent cut in salary. Taking annual paid leave is the same as giving up future income.

Hiring a babysitter can cost more than 10,000 won ($8) per hour.

One office worker at a medium-sized firm is struggling to pay a babysitter who cares for his 10-year-old child.

He and his wife take turns taking a paid leave. On other days when the two have to go to work, they hire a babysitter to look after their child all day. The costs add up.

“We used to hire the babysitter to take care of our child for a couple of hours in the evening. Now we hire her full time, and the money that goes to our babysitter is close to our monthly salary,” he said.

As the outbreak has continued on longer than expected, the government decided to offer a special subsidy of 50,000 won a day for up to five days for working parents on family care leave.

Double-income households can receive 500,000 won - 250,000 won per person - for five days. More than 10,000 people have applied for the government stipends when they were first offered.

Meals are an unexpected issue working parents face.

Ha Young-ah, a 45-year-old marketer, said the experience is like “hell.” While private academies have resumed operations, many request students to bring their own lunches or order food to prevent infection.

Ha says she does her grocery shopping on her commute and wakes up early in the morning to make lunch and dinner for her two children. She expects the routine to continue on even after schools open in April.

Experts say that the coronavirus outbreak has shed light on social inequality, as the gravity of the pandemic’s impact can vary depending on an individual’s socioeconomic status. This is why the government should think outside the box when approaching such problems.

“The social divide can worsen if we shift the burden of the pandemic to the individual. We should use this opportunity to acknowledge that the purpose of employee welfare is to promote the sharing nature of the society we live in,” said Song In-han, a professor of social welfare at Yonsei University.

“Employers and employees should try to understand what each other is going through, be considerate and overcome the crisis together.”

BY LEE SO-A [kang.jaeeun@joongang.co.kr]

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