Working and childcare during the Covid-19 pandemic

With schools closed to the majority of children during the Covid-19 pandemic, many parents now working from home are having to balance childcare and their jobs.

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For many working parents, life has changed as we know it due to the current pandemic.

The Government announced on 10 May that a return to school is imminent for some children, with certain year groups to start back on 1 June. However, this did not cover all age groups and some local authorities have decided they will not be following the Government’s guidance in any event. Therefore, it is likely that many children will be at home for the foreseeable future.

One issue which therefore seems to be causing problems is that many parents / carers are being expected to carry out their jobs, with no consideration of the fact that they also need to look after their children due to nurseries and schools being closed. Not only dealing with homeschooling but everything that comes from the children being at home, such as feeding them, cleaning and keeping them entertained.

So where does that leave working parents / carers? The Prime Minister has said that employers must be understanding, which is unhelpful to both employers and employees, so what are the options available?

  1. Flexible Working

You can ask your employer to alter your working arrangements to allow you to continue to work and care for your child/children at the same time, or alternate/share the responsibility with your partner/spouse. This could include allowing you to work from home or altering your hours / days of work. 

The Government have stated that wherever possible, employee’s should be allowed to work from home. Many employers are going further than this by allowing staff to reduce their days, start work earlier, log on to do work in at weekends or in the evening so that they can balance home and work life better, in the current situation.

If you think this would be beneficial, the first step is to have a discussion with your employer to explain the situation. Any agreement should then be recorded in writing so that there is no confusion as to what is expected and when, and should also be noted as a temporary arrangement only, perhaps for as long as schools and nurseries remain closed, or until the Government say people should return to work, as normal.

If your employer is being resistant, you do have the right to make a formal flexible working request. This would be a permanent change to your working arrangements, unless agreed in writing that it is only on a temporary basis. 

  1. Furlough under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (“the CJRS”)

The Government guidance states that employees can request to be furloughed under the CJRS if they are unable to work due to childcare and/or caring commitments. It goes further to state that employees can also ask to be furloughed if they need to stay at home with someone who is shielding.

In these circumstances, your employer can claim for 80% of your wages up to 2,500 per month. They can chose to “top up” the extra so you still receive 100% but they do not have to do so. If you are furloughed, you continue to remain employed by your employer but cannot carry out any work for them. Your employer may ask you to take annual leave during your furlough leave and if you do so, this should be paid at your normal pay (100%).

Unfortunately, whilst you can request to be furloughed, this is not an absolute right and an employer does not have to agree to the request.

  1. Annual Leave

You can ask to use any accrued annual leave, to mean that you have days off each week, or that your working days are shorter.

  1. Dependant’s Leave

You can request to a reasonable amount of time off where necessary for anyone who relies on you for care, to deal with unforeseen or emergency situations. The closure of schools and nurseries, or older relatives not being able to help with childcare would fall into these categories.

Whilst it is normally taken for short periods of time, without any alternatives available at this present time, there is an argument to say that it should last as long as schools/nurseries remain closed and other family members / friends cannot assist. The leave can be taken for a few hours a day, or in blocks of time and should not be refused, given at present it is likely to be both reasonable and necessary for parents / carers to need the time off. 

This type of leave is usually unpaid unless your employer has a policy in place which provides for you to be paid. 

  1. Parental Leave

Parental leave is available to all employees who have 1 years’ continuous service, who have children under 18 years of age. You can take 4 weeks’ leave per child, per year and must be taken in blocks of 1 week. 

You must give 21 days’ notice (albeit this can be shorter by agreement) and unfortunately, unlike dependant’s leave, an employer can refuse a request for parental leave or postpone it where there would be disruption to their business if it were allowed.

Again, this type of leave is usually unpaid unless your employer has a policy in place which provides for you to be paid. 

  1. Unpaid Leave

Some employers are agreeing that employees can take unpaid leave for as long as necessary in order to look after their children. Your employment would continue throughout and the terms of the leave down to agreement with your employer, for example it may be paid/unpaid.

  1. Sick Leave

If you or anyone you live with is suffering from or has symptoms of COVID-19 or have been told to self-isolate by a doctor or NHS 111, you should self-isolate. 

From 13 March, employees and workers who are self-isolating must receive at least Statutory Sick Pay (“SSP”) from the first day they’re absent from work. You may be entitled to enhanced sick pay if your employer has a policy in place which provides for the same.

Most employers are being sensible and understanding, given that even they themselves appreciate that their employees are in this position through no fault of their own and have very few options available to them. 

That said, there are certain rogue employers who are not being helpful and whilst the above list highlights that there are options available, more certainty is needed as to the rights and protection of working parents / carers. If your employer is refusing to furlough you or consider alternatives for you at this time then we would suggest you take legal advice, given that they may be grounds for a grievance complaint to be raised or, in the worst cases, Tribunal claims, such as indirect sex discrimination or constructive dismissal. 

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