By Claire Kelly
In 2019, Foreign Service Officer Laura Thibault started a support group for working parents with an email listserv called Working Parents @ State (WP@S). The group quickly became an advocacy engine when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. With childcare centers closing, and the effects of the pandemic on children yet unknown, it became clear from conversations on the listserv that parents were in an untenable situation juggling demands at work, virtual learning for their children, and constant decisions that impacted the health of their families. WP@S members Claire Kelly, Elana Mendelson, and Michelle Romo drafted a letter to the under secretary for management detailing these concerns and advocating for flexibilities like COVID-19 administrative leave and expanded core hours. In a matter of days, hundreds of employees signed the letter. The three fellow parents then turned their advocacy to Capitol Hill and, with other WP@S members, on their personal time, lobbied for COVID-19 administrative leave and support like the emergency paid sick leave.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (on the basis of sex, as female and male caregivers) and E.O. 13152 parents are protected from discrimination. Time and again employees reached out to WP@S leadership to seek advice on discrimination they were facing as parents in this new landscape and on how to access the resources needed to balance work and family. Recognizing the importance of inclusion of parents in the workplace, Mendelson, Kelly, Romo, and Thibault applied for WP@S to become an Employee Affinity Group (EAG) in March 2021. After a hard-fought battle, the Department of State’s newest EAG was approved on January 24, 2022. Mendelson, Kelly, Romo, Thibault, and Ioana DiFiore are the interim board of WP@S, whose mission is to advocate for parents and work with other EAGs and leadership throughout the Department on retention and inclusion of parent-employees.
As the pandemic has continued, parents, especially mothers and women of color, are leaving the workforce in alarming numbers—largely due to the childcare crisis. Almost 16,000 childcare facilities have closed permanently since the start of the pandemic and those facilities that have been able to remain open often offer reduced hours and suffer from severe staffing shortages. On top of that, necessary COVID-19 protocols result in centers and schools being shut down frequently. The Department’s backup care benefit, an essential employee resource for nearly a decade and a lifeline during ongoing COVID-19 closures, was drastically cut in fiscal year 2022. WP@S is currently proposing a number of policy changes that would assist parent employees.
As a new group, WP@S is making headway in creating an equal and inclusive workforce where all parents can achieve their career and family goals. To join the group, employees may subscribe to the listserv here or contact WP@S leadership.
Claire Kelly is an attorney-advisor in the Office of the Legal Adviser for Consular Affairs.