The Employment Team at Geldards wish you a very Happy New Year! For our first employment update of 2021 we’re looking at the return of home-schooling and the likely pressures that will arise for employees and employers as a result.
Following recent government decisions across the UK to close schools, employers are facing the possibility that employees may now be juggling working from home with childcare and home-schooling. This puts employers in an unenviable position. On the one hand employers will wish to support staff who are working in difficult circumstances, while at the same time ensuring that their business interests are protected and that feelings of resentment and inequity amongst staff who don’t have children but who may feel they are expected to “pick up the slack” do not escalate.
What options are available to employers therefore to assist employees to provide the support required by their children, whilst maintaining productivity and performance in their role?
One option considered by many organisations has been to utilise the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (‘the furlough scheme’) for parents.
The furlough scheme remains open until 30 April 2021 and provided employees and employers meet the eligibility requirements it presents an option for working parents. HMRC has recently clarified their guidance to advise that employers can furlough employees who have caring responsibilities arising out of Covid-19 which specifically includes parents who are taking care of children as a result of schools being shut.
This has provided a welcomed clarification for employers and parents alike, however the furlough scheme does not necessarily provide a panacea. For employers, continuing to make pensions and National Insurance contributions for employees on furlough may prove to be a significant financial burden and employees may not welcome the reduction in salary which accompanies being furloughed. Consideration must also be given by employers to the allocation of work left by furloughed parents and the implications this may have for the remainder of the workforce.
There is no obligation on employers to furlough staff, and a blanket policy of furloughing those with childcare responsibilities should be avoided as it could result in indirect discrimination claims under the Equality Act 2010, as child-care responsibilities tend to fall disproportionately on women. Consultation on an individual case by case basis should provide a more targeted solution and minimise the risks of any such claims.
A more long-term solution may be provided by the flexible working provisions under the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Flexible Working Regulations 2014. This statutory right only extends to those that fall within the definition of employee and who have at least 26 weeks' continuous employment. Employers must deal with a flexible working request within the prescriptive statutory provisions, in a reasonable manner and within 3 months (unless an extension is agreed).
It is worth employers and employees alike remembering that any change to working hours or working patterns agreed as a result of a flexible working request will be a permanent change to the employee’s contract of employment. For this reason it may not be considered to be a viable option for what may be a short-term issue.
Parental leave is another existing right available to working parents who have been employed for at least one year. Up to 18 weeks unpaid leave is available to be taken up until a child’s 18th birthday and could be utilised by parents in the current circumstances.
Additional annual leave may also be another option. Certain organisations have started to offer a few weeks paid “lockdown leave” to affected parents to cover emergencies that arise with their childcare over the next few months, although employees without child-care responsibilities are likely to expect a similar entitlement.
Other informal arrangements can be also be made such as allowing employees to split their hours (working early in the morning or later into the evening) on a temporary basis, without going through a flexible working request process and making a permanent change.
It is unlikely that a single approach will be ideal in every case and a combination of the options outlined is likely to provide the best solution for employers.
If you have any queries relating to the above or in general contact a member of the Geldards Employment team.
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