Working parents are yet again having to cope with juggling home schooling and working during the latest coronavirus lockdown. What options do employers and employees have? And how can employers support their employees in creating a working balance?
The Prime Minister’s announcement of a third national lockdown on 4 January gave many working parents just an evening’s notice that schools were closing to all but children of key workers and vulnerable students until at least the February half term.
School closures cause enormous challenges for both employers and working parents and were clearly a measure of last resort for the Government faced with escalating pressure on the NHS. So what options are available to employers and working parents?
Options for employers to consider
Right to time off
Parents have the right to take a reasonable amount of time off work during their normal working hours to take action that is necessary because of an unexpected disruption or termination of arrangements for the care of a dependent. School closures will potentially fall within this provision.
Whilst it gives parents a right to take time off work, it is only a limited right because its purpose is to give parents an opportunity to make alternative arrangements for the care of a child. It does not envisage a situation, as we have at present, in which the country is in lockdown, with very limited opportunities for social interaction and mixing of households.
One options that employers could ask working parents to consider is the potential of forming a childcare bubble, which is permitted under the latest lockdown rules.
Working from home
During this lockdown people may only leave their homes for work if they cannot reasonably work from home. There are exceptions for key workers, critical national infrastructure, construction and manufacturing. Therefore, it is likely that most working parents who can, already are working from home. But the reality is that working life is never that easy to fit around children, particularly where they are young and need almost constant supervision. Working from home alone may not be enough to allow some working parents to juggle the responsibilities of work and family life at the moment.
Flexible working requests
Whilst it is possible to make flexible working requests, a formal request may take up to three months to arrange and will result in permanent changes to an employee’s contract. It is unlikely that employees will want to make statutory requests for flexibility. Employees might make informal requests for flexibility for the hopefully short period that schools will be closed.
Whilst there is the opportunity to place employees on furlough, whether an employer chooses to do that or not is a matter entirely at an employer’s discretion. Where an employer has some employees furloughed and others who are continuing to work it might be easier for a parent to argue that they should be placed on furlough, taking the place of an employee who is furloughed and who does not have childcare responsibilities.Another option, might be to consider flexible furlough, if the employee could do some work during the day, and be furloughed and receive furlough pay for the hours not worked.
There are, of course, obvious dangers to such an approach: (i) furlough pay is capped at 80% of normal pay with a maximum of £2500 a month, so a parent may be taking a pay cut; (ii) having fought to get onto furlough, if schools reopen quickly, it may be difficult to get off furlough; (iii) if redundancies have to be made, whilst employers have to act fairly, those on furlough might be more at risk of being made redundant.
Underlying all of this is the issue of sex discrimination. If those who have childcare responsibilities are not permitted to take time off, they may try to argue that the employer’s refusal amounts to indirect sex discrimination. Whilst that is a potential claim an employee might choose to make, with the current backlog of cases in the tribunal, the threat of such a claim may well be low down on the list of an employer’s concerns.
Employees may have built up substantial holiday entitlements over the past year which they have not had the opportunity to take. If all else fails it might be possible to use up some of that holiday now, whilst not ideal from an employee’s perspective it does provide an alternative. Equally, in companies that operate a TOIL policy, employees might be permitted to take time off now if there is an expectation on the employer’s part that there will be sufficient work later in the year to justify employees working extended hours.
What should working parents do?
Ideally, they should approach their employer with a plan, much as they would do if seeking to make a formal flexible work request. This should seek to answer questions, including: what do they need to be able to provide adequate supervision for their children? How are they going to fit that in around their work commitments? If both parents are working from home, is it possible for them to work in shifts to deal with their work and home needs?
Making the parents’ problem the employer’s dilemma is going to achieve little. Setting out how they can continue to function and meet their work commitments is more likely to result in a positive response from the employer.
There are no easy answers to the problem of childcare, but employers and employees need to work together and think how they can work together to achieve a positive outcome for both.
Creating a Working Balance
However we are working, the challenges and demands on our time and the blurring of the lines between work and home have created tensions. Juggling the demand of work and home and home-schooling without the comforts of an office environment, colleagues on hand and routine is difficult. How can managers and HR deliver efficiencies whilst supporting their workforces in a new working regime? How can employees deliver in a balanced way, focusing on long term productivity and sustainability?
Join Emma O'Connor, Head of Training at Boyes Turner, and Rosemary Ryan, Director of Represent, for a live interactive virtual training course which will explore and reinterpret the rules of working remotely which works for your business and your people. Through the 90-minutes and in a small workshop style session we will:
• Explore the benefits and challenges working remotely
• Focus on avoiding "Zoom overload" and maximising opportunities for hybrid working
• Look at how we can drive productivity while maintaining good work/life balance in a home environment
• Ask - are you a "segmentor" or an "integrator" and how does this impact upon remote working habits
• Explore how working arrangements can be managed to suit both you and your stakeholders as well as looking at how we can create a positive support network