Denise Christianson, the longtime office manager and travel coordinator for TouchTone Communications in Cedar Knolls, vividly remembers the day last March when her second-grade daughter’s school announced it was going to hybrid learning.
“I wondered if I was going to have to quit my job,” she recalled.
Company President Pino Bio remembers the day, too. And the short conversation that followed.
Bio said the company was eager to accommodate Christianson however needed. And, since Christianson needed to be in the office every day — if that meant bringing her daughter, Lucia, too, that was just fine.
“We value our employees and their contributions,” Bio said. “Even prior to the pandemic, we have always tried to uphold a positive and supportive workplace culture.
“Most of our employees are working remotely, which allows for more flexibility, but for those that need to come into the office, we were happy to accommodate.”
The gesture meant the world to Christianson, an 18-year employee.
“I can’t put into words how grateful I am,” she said.
The image is one for the history books.
Mom is at her desk, doing her work as a main contact and conduit for the company’s more than 50 employees.
Lucia is at desk aligned next to it, doing her work as an elementary school student in Lake Hiawatha on a Chromebook.
She turns 8 in May — but already handles herself with maturity beyond her years. Even if she does it with her favorite stuffed animal nearby.
“She understands that, when Mommy has a deadline, she needs to give me space to work,” Christianson said.
Most of the time, she said with a laugh.
“She does push my buttons sometimes to see how much she can get away it,” she said.
Christianson said her husband, who goes to work early and gets out early, often will come by and pick Lucia up early in the afternoon. Sometimes, it’s her grandparents. But, like everything else, it’s an adjustment that comes on the fly. Lucia’s school ends around lunchtime. Sometimes, Lucia needs to stay all day.
“She handles it,” Christianson said. “She knows the schedule.”
The adjustment, Christianson said, goes both ways.
“It was overwhelming at first,” she said. “But, we’ve gotten used to it. And now, she wants to help. She’ll bring things to some of other employees that are here. She says she’s my assistant.”
It will be years, if not decades, before we truly understand the total impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on society.
One of the many impacts already evident is the drop in the labor participation rate of women in the workplace — a drop mainly caused by the fact that most women double as the primary caregiver for their children (and their older relatives).
In February, it was estimated that nearly 3 million women in the U.S. have left the workforce. Pre-pandemic, women were more than 50% of the workforce. Their participation rate has dropped nearly 3 percentage points. It remains to be seen if it will drop below that dividing line — and how long it might take before women rebuild their numbers.
This much is clear: The number of women dropping out of the workforce continues to grow. In January, the federal government reported that male participation remained steady, while female participation dropped again.
Christianson is thrilled that she has been able to keep working. As is the case for everyone, the family finances, she said, wouldn’t allow for her to stop.
And, she hopes, long-term, some good will come of the situation. Her mom did not work, she said. Allowing her daughter to see the inner workings of an office environment at a young age is a plus.
Then, there are some of the unique bonding moments. On a nice day, she can take her daughter to the park for a girls-only lunch.
Still, Christianson is eager for her daughter to return to school full time.
“She needs to be there, full time,” she said. “All kids do. They need that interaction. They need that hands-on learning and one-on-one instruction they can’t get over a computer.”
Christianson’s hope is that schools will be back on that schedule. Until that day, she’ll continue to work with her daughter at her side.
“This company is phenomenal,” she said. “They are like family. They work with you. They’re completely understanding.
“I wouldn’t say it was surprising that they allowed me to bring my daughter to work, because they’ve always been willing to work with me and everyone else.
“But I will say that I’m forever grateful.”