Working parents’ employment rights during the school closure

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As colleges, primary schools and secondary schools are to remain closed at least until February half term, what employment rights do working parents have to help them with the difficult and stressful juggling act of balancing work and home schooling?

Many working parents who are able to do so will already be working from home and will have had experience during the first national lockdown of balancing work with home schooling.

Employers have had to allow far more flexibility than would normally be afforded to parents working from home due to these unique and unprecedented circumstances.


Request to be furloughed by your employer

Requesting to be put on furlough leave could be a good solution for working parents. If fully furloughed, employees cannot carry out any work for their employer and can, therefore, focus their full time and attention on home-schooling their children.

The TUC has urged employers to use the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), which has been extended until 31 April 2021, to furlough parents affected by the school closures. There is clearly pressure on employers to do so, particularly when this is requested by employees, although, ultimately, the decision is the employers’ to make.

The government’s guidance on the CJRS now contains a specific section on furlough due to caring responsibilities. The guidance states that “you can be furloughed if caring responsibilities arising from coronavirus mean you are: unable to work (including working from home), or working reduced hours.”

Caring responsibilities include caring for children at home as a result of school or childcare facilities closing. While this may be an appropriate option for some working parents, it could mean that their salary is reduced to 80%, up to a maximum of £2,500 per month if their employer does not agree to top up their salary to 100%.

There is also still the option of using the flexible furlough scheme, whereby employees are paid in full for any hours they do work and paid at least 80% of their wages, up to a maximum of £2,500 per month for the hours they are furloughed and not working.


Make an informal request for temporary changes to your working hours

Given that currently schools are due to be closed for a limited period, instead of making a formal flexible working request (see point three below), working parents could make an informal request for temporary changes to their working hours for this limited period only.

This could involve an agreement to work different hours of the day (such as mornings and evenings) or a temporary reduction in hours (and pay). Parents should ensure they get written agreement from their employer that they will revert back to their previous terms as soon as schools reopen.


Make a formal request for flexible working

Employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service can make a flexible working request, which must be considered in a reasonable manner by their employer.

Employers can only reject a request for one or more of eight prescribed statutory reasons (including the burden of additional costs, detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand, inability to reorganise work among existing staff and detrimental impact on performance to name a few).

Parents should bear in mind, however, that acceptance of a flexible working request would result in a permanent change to their terms and conditions of employment, unless otherwise agreed. Also, the employer has a three-month period in which to reach their decision and so an employee may not get a response before schools reopen.

Only one request can be made in a twelve-month period and so parents may be unable to revert back to their previous terms when schools reopen unless their employer agrees.


Request time off to care for a dependant

Employees have a statutory right to a “reasonable” amount of time off to care for a dependant where necessary. The purpose of the leave however is to deal with an emergency, such as a child falling ill or to deal with an unexpected incident during a period in which an educational establishment which the child attends is responsible for them.

The amount of leave permitted is limited (usually two to three days) and the statutory right is to unpaid leave only, although some employers offer a certain number of days’ paid leave to care for a dependant.


Request to take parental leave

This is a form of statutory unpaid leave available to employees with not less than one year’s continuous service. Parents can take up to 18 weeks’ leave for each child up until the child’s 18th birthday.


Take annual leave

Taking one- or two-days’ holiday each week during which they receive full pay may help parents juggle work and home-schooling, however, there may be an expectation that parents will work their normal hours on the days they are not on holiday.


Full or flexible furlough leave is a good option for working parents who can afford for their salaries to be reduced during this limited period. Where that is not viable, employers need to allow their employees affected by the school closure as much flexibility as possible.

There is hopefully an end in sight, particularly now that a third coronavirus vaccine has been approved for use in the UK.

Sarah-Jane Watson is employment partner at Keystone Law


Further reading:

How HR can support working parents

Pandemic has caused career crisis for parents and carers

Working Families names companies providing best flexibility for parents and carers

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