On Wednesday 18 March 2020, the Prime Minster, Boris Johnson, advised that all schools are to shut from Friday, 20 March 2020 until further notice. This is a decision which will affect the whole of society, including employers and employees. This is because parents will now have to make new arrangements for their childcare. This is especially the case because, in emergency circumstances like these, childcare would usually fall on grandparents to allow the parents to continue working, however Boris Johnson also advised against parents leaving their child in the care of grandparents or other vulnerable people as they are in the most at risk category.
However, “key workers” are continuing to be supported at schools. Key workers have not yet fully been defined, but we are given to understand that they will include NHS workers, police services, social care workers, and delivery drivers. Schools are also expected to make plans to facilitate this and care for the most vulnerable children. All other children who do not fall within this category will have to stay at home with alternative care.
This means that, for the majority of employees who are not key workers, our advice to employers is that you should work with parents to come to arrangements which facilitate all necessary childcare.
For parents, especially those who cannot work from home due to the nature of their role, this can be a big worry as they may feel their employers will still expect them to work as normal and potentially if they don’t they may be at risk of losing their job. However, employees do have some legal rights which will help them to manage at this difficult time and there are also practical steps which an employer can take to help their employees through this difficult time.
In the first instance, employers should communicate with employees who are parents and explain the options and expectations.
We take the view that communication is key in these difficult times and the Bank of England boss has advised that people should resist firing their employees and should first “stop, look at what’s available, come and talk to us [or] the government before you take that position”. Here, we agree wholeheartedly. Although every business’ situation is different, there is financial support from the Government available, the purpose of which is to reduce the number of dismissals and redundancies.
Employees should talk to their employees, and consider every alternative, before making any drastic decisions.
Work from home
Employers should consider allowing parents to work from home where possible and potentially allow more flexible hours within the remit of working from home, to acknowledge that the parents will now have childcare requirements. If hours are flexible, this will help if the employee can only arrange childcare for a certain period of the day/week or can shift childcare with another parent. This should allow parents to continue to work and also care for their children.
Amendments to working time
Employees may be willing to agree short-term changes to their shift patterns or working hours/days to facilitate childcare. Employers should suggest such changes verbally at first, and then follow up with a letter which makes the new hours, salary, and holiday entitlement clear to that employee.
An employer should consider asking an employee whether they are willing to take some of the next few weeks as annual leave. This can be mandated by employers if they have the requisite clauses in their contract, but employers should bear staff morale in mind if they are requesting that parents use up all their annual leave at this difficult time.
Dependents leave is a right an employee has to take a reasonable amount of time off. However, dependents leave is unpaid time off and only usually lasts for a day or two.
An employer cannot refuse an employee dependents leave if they have no other option meaning they cannot be disciplined or fired for taking the time off but an employee must tell their employer as soon as possible their need for dependents leave, the reason for this and how long they expect to need this for.
Because it’s usual to only use dependents leave for one or two days, and given that there is currently no date being given for when schools are set to reopen, we take the view that dependents leave could be used in the immediate, to make arrangements, but that more long-term arrangements should be made with those employees as soon as possible.
An employee has to right to request parental leave. However, again this is unpaid. Parental leave is only limited to 18 weeks and usually this should be taken in weeks Whilst an employee takes parental leave their employment rights will remain protected, including their annual leave entitlement and right to return to work.
To be entitled to parental leave, an employee must:
- Have worked for the business for more than a year
- Have parental responsibility for the child (defined under the Children Act 1989) and
- Be named on the child’s birth certificate or have obtained formal legal parental responsibilities.
This is a difficult time for everyone, and the ongoing uncertainty about when things will either end or escalate is putting everyone under strain whilst they try and make arrangements. Our advice is that employers are as flexible as possible with parents and try to make it possible for them to continue to earn (either by changing their hours or by working from home) whilst they care for their children.