Jenni Grainger gives a personal account of the harsh reality of juggling childcare and being furloughed while attempting to steer an organisation through a crisis.
Coronavirus has put every company at risk. While we might not go bust by March 2021, my company needs me. And it needed me in March 2020 more than ever. But I also have caring responsibilities in my personal life and this has been exposed to the max by the pandemic.
I know I am in a fortunate position. Told by an Idiot is a very positive employer. I am in a position of leadership, have job security and live in a dual-income household. Covid-19 has put others in much harder positions.
Wherever you are on the scale, it’s been a dreadful 6 months.
Tear up the game plan
As lockdown began, and with our 2020-21 original plan for a mid-scale tour in tatters, our Artistic Director Paul, and I spent hours urgently mapping how we could re-work our year while retaining company values and USPs. We quickly realised that we would not be hunkering down. We would strive to stay delivering live theatre for an audience in the same physical space, all being together in the moment. The essence of what theatre means to us.
I began work on this plan for the first 3 weeks of lockdown. Or should I say, tried to.
The reality was that no-one in my house was getting much work done. I was becoming of increasingly little value to my own organisation as my four-year old daughter, who is usually in full-time nursery, was also trying to cope with the re-working of her year. Coping mechanisms included wetting herself on my Zoom calls and screaming so loud that no headphones were cutting it. I don’t blame her one bit. The whole situation was horrid and she was entitled to her opinion too.
My husband works for a financial technology start-up and was busier than ever. He is also (not surprisingly in comparison to the arts) the much higher earner. No matter how much scenario-planning we did, there was no getting away from the fact that I had to take the back seat, even though I run a business in an industry facing impending doom.
Reluctantly, and against every leadership instinct, I asked my board to furlough me. Or rather, as so often in a leadership role in the arts, I asked myself how I could make furloughing me work. I created and presented a plan highlighting cost-saving benefits and playing down the chasm created by a missing-in-action Executive Director.
I sobbed when speaking to my Chair about my furlough. I have an experienced staff and an Artistic Director with whom I am in complete synergy, but I was making a choice that didn’t seem like a choice. Nothing took away the sting of having to leave at a time when everything I had been working on was at a precipice. But my 4-year-old has an attention span on any given task – including watching TV before anyone asks! – that is less than 40 seconds unless I am completing said task with her. She was also at a cliff edge.
Back to work
I returned in July, but here’s the rub: furloughing others on my return was not an option as other employees would need to have been furloughed for 3 consecutive weeks before the end of June in order to claim furlough support. This, seemingly arbitrary, rule has had a huge effect on us. Between March and June Told by an Idiot was peddling fast to deal with the Covid blow-out and the absence of the Executive Director. There were no ‘3 consecutive weeks’ of any other staff member’s time to spare.
July onwards was different in that it was planned (as far as anyone can plan). I was back and furloughing other staff members made financial sense. It would also have offered my staff a well-deserved respite on my return. But we were denied access to this option so, with my financial hat on, I had no option but to furlough myself again, albeit part-time. It was the only way to take continued advantage of the financial support from the government and therefore the most prudent thing to do. But it smarted. Being someone with caring responsibilities smarted.
I chatted to Cassie Raine, Co-founder and Director of Parents in the Performing Arts (PIPA), about my experience. She notes: “It’s been a very difficult time for everybody, but for parents and carers it has been and continues to be a particularly challenging time. From the surveys that we have done, 75% of carers and parents are thinking about leaving the sector. As a sector, when we look to ‘come back’, we need to really consider the needs of parents and carers and recognise the value in supporting them. The value of people who care”.
Home takes centre stage
The pandemic has brought each other’s personal lives to the forefront. There’s no opportunity to ‘leave your personal life at the door’ as, on Zoom calls for instance, we’re already sitting in each other’s houses, one step away from a sleepover. People’s home situations, and in particular their caring responsibilities are no longer invisible. The sector needs to learn from this and take note. The current climate is as good a time as any to re-evaluate the nuances of how we all work together.
On a final note, it’s fair to throw into this conversation that I am a woman. Women have been far more impacted by the pandemic than men across all sectors. The fact remains that men earn more: the gender pay gap among full-time employees stands at 8.9%, little changed from 2018 and a decline of only 0.6 percentage points since 2012. Women are also the ones who remain predominantly the primary carers, and therefore the ones for whom it makes ‘the most sense’ for a family to furlough. Even those in leaderships roles.
And ‘the most sense’, sucks.
Jenni Grainger is Executive Director of Told by an Idiot