In a distance-learning environment brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, parents with school-aged children are faced with tough choices if they have to leave home to go to work.
Should they quit their job? Should they leave their children alone? Ask a neighbor or a relative to help out? Spend part of their hard-earned money on a babysitter who will probably also have to fill in as a tutor or a de facto teacher?
Recognizing the challenges working parents are grappling with in the COVID-19 era, the State Employees Credit Union came up with a solution for its employees: Bring your children to work — and not just on Take Your Child to Work Day.
The credit union, which has eight branches, including two in Santa Fe, set up classrooms, or what it calls education labs, at each location and staffed each one with a tutor or monitor to oversee employees’ children while they learn through online platforms and their parents do their work.
“We have one employee who has five children — there is no way that employee could have retained her job and took the care that her children needed,” said Deborah Sparks, chief human resources officer for the credit union.
Word of the credit union’s education labs has filtered into the community, generating inquiries about whether others can send their children there, too, which Sparks said shows the need for child care as students engage in remote learning.
“We have these parents, oftentimes single parents, who don’t know what they’re going to do,” she said. “They’re stuck between a rock and a hard spot. They need to educate their children, but they also need a job to feed their children. I just don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Kate Noble, president of the Santa Fe school board, said it’s one of the issues that keeps her up at night.
“Working families are in a world of hurt right now,” she said.
Superintendent Veronica García called the credit union’s program “very creative” and a “great idea.”
“I take off my hat to any corporate partner that is doing their best to make sure that children are not left at home unsupervised,” she said. “Hopefully, if we can all work together, we can make sure that all of our children are being well taken care of.”
Sparks said the credit union’s management team, including Harold Dixon, president and CEO, started planning a couple of months ago how to help employees who have children once school resumed.
“We realized we were going to have some issues because staff had to stay home, take care of their kids — how were we going to service our members?” Sparks said. “With 160 employees, we knew it was going to impact us.”
When the credit union pitched the idea of an education lab for children to its employees, the response was immediate, Sparks said.
“We started getting responses from all the offices,” she said.
In an email, Dixon said the credit union saw a need to help its employees as the possibility of virtual classrooms became more real.
“Some may ask why we opted for this route when we weren’t required to do so,” he wrote. “I would respond by saying that this is just another way to help each other mitigate the current events by coming together and offering support when and if we can. Our employees are thankful, and the children are able to continue their studies in a safe and supervised manner.”
Thirty-two children are currently enrolled.
Among them is Jayda Benavidez, an 11-year-old sixth grade student at Pecos Middle School. Her mother, Leann Quiroz, said it’s a blessing to have her daughter learn from her workplace.
With the family living 40 miles from Santa Fe, “when they call and say, ‘Mom, my computer crashed,’ it’s much harder for me to figure out how to solve the problem over the phone,” Quiroz said.
Having an education room on-site “is very convenient and helpful,” she said. “I’m just so thankful for them providing this to our kids.”
Asked about the cost of the program, Sparks said the credit union doesn’t exactly know.
“We really haven’t put a dollar to it,” she said. “You can put a hard cost to it, but the benefit that we are seeing to our staff is immeasurable.”
Employee Christine Anaya, whose 11-year-old daughter, Taylor Hewlett, a sixth grade student at Piñon Elementary School, participates in the program, said one of the best parts of allowing kids to learn at her workplace is “being able to check in on them.”
Anaya said her favorite part of the day is lunch because she gets to spend it with Taylor.
“It’s not often that a [working] parent gets to enjoy lunch with their child. It’s nice to get to know your child on a different level,” she said.
“To me, it’s been an odd blessing,” she added.
The program was also designed with the credit union’s estimated 48,000 members in mind.
“We have members all across the state of New Mexico that still need access to their banking needs, and financial institutions are still one of those essential places where we need to continue to facilitate the needs of our members and their access to their money and their loans and the support that they need during these uncertain times,” said Kyle Moore, vice president of member experience.
“Parents are obviously in this really sticky situation where we have to balance work life like we’ve never had to do before, and kids have to balance how they’re going to absorb education like they’ve never really had to do before,” Moore added.
Sparks said the credit union is taking “all the precautions,” from social distancing to the wearing of face masks.
“We’ve got the hand sanitizer and the whole bit,” she said. “It’s working very, very well.”
City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, vice chairwoman of the credit union’s board, gave the business “a real big shoutout” at Wednesday’s council meeting.
“People I’ve told about this have really gotten goosebumps,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful business decision that deals with COVID and helps employees at the same time.”
Sparks said the credit union will continue the program for as long as it is needed.
“We have a motto here at the credit union, ‘I’ve got your back,’ and I think this exemplifies that motto,” she said. “We have our employees’ backs. We’ve always felt that if you take good care of the employees, they will take good care of you and our members. That’s all we can ask. I think as more employers — if they are able to do things like this or think outside the box — it can only benefit the business.”
Staff writer Olivia Harlow contributed to this report.