Dealing with employees who have childcare issues caused by the coronavirus
30 May 2020
As the Government has begun to advise that some employers are able to reopen their workplaces (subject to complying with appropriate health and safety requirements), many employers and employees have been asking what happens where employers want employees to return, but the employees cannot find childcare because schools, nurseries or childminders are not able to take their children.
Working from home
Although some workplaces are beginning to reopen, the Government is still emphasising that those who are able to work from home should do so – this should therefore be the first option. It is obviously not ideal if an employee is trying to work from home whilst also having responsibility for children, particularly young children, but employers should try and accommodate this as best they can, particularly for those who do not have access to other childcare.
Where working from home is not possible
There are of course some roles that cannot be carried out from home, in which case there are a number of options for employers and employees, some more viable than others:
1. Returning to school/childcare settings
Vulnerable children and the children of key workers have been given priority in schools and other childcare settings throughout the lockdown period, and so employees where one or more of the parents are key workers can ask their childcare providers if the child can still attend. However, even if this is available, it will not necessarily cover all of the hours that it did previously.
Although some schools in England are reopening their doors to children whose parents are not key workers, this is only for a limited number of year groups, and is not necessarily a full-time provision. The situation varies hugely across the country.
Schools and local authorities are not currently requiring parents to return their children to school if they choose not to send them for health and safety reasons and are not issuing fines for non-attendance. Some parents may be concerned for the safety of their children and may not want them to return, and where children live with a person who is ‘shielding’ because they are clinically vulnerable, they may want to avoid increased risk of infection in the household.
The current restrictions regarding social distancing mean that it is unlikely to be possible for grandparents/other family members/friends of employees to help out with childcare as they may have done previously.
3. Full furlough
Many of the employees who are not key workers and are not able to work from home have been furloughed during the lockdown.
As we have covered in our previous articles regarding furlough, employers can, with agreement of the affected employee, put or keep their employees on furlough, if the employee is unable to work due to caring responsibilities.
An employee would need to agree to being furloughed (or to furlough being extended) but many employees would readily agree to this option, as it would mean they receive some pay, even if at 80% or £2,500. However, the scheme is changing over the coming months and employers will be expected to contribute, with the percentage contribution increasing in stages, as we explain in our article here.
Of course it will not necessarily be practical for the business to keep certain employees, or a significant number of employees, on furlough once things reopen, and it is important to remember that an employer does not necessarily have any obligation to offer furlough or to extend it.
4. Part time furlough
As our update article explains, the Chancellor has today confirmed that from 1 July 2020 employers can start to bring furloughed workers back part time without ending furlough, provided that the employer pays the employee in full for the hours worked. How exactly this will work in practice is not yet known, but it could be a good option for employees who are struggling with childcare as it may enable partners to share childcare between them whilst still carrying out at least some work.
5. Parental leave
Parents with at least one year’s service with their employer are entitled to take up to four weeks a year as unpaid parental leave, for each child they are responsible for under the age of 18 (with a maximum number of 18 weeks per child before they reach 18 years of age). However, employees are required to give their employers at least 21 days’ notice in order to take parental leave, so unless an employer waives this, it may not solve immediate childcare issues. Also, an employer does have the right to postpone parental leave if the ‘operation of its business would be unduly disrupted’.
6. Time off for dependants
Employees are also permitted to take time off for dependants if they need to deal with an emergency situation (which could include a lack of childcare), and should be given a ‘reasonable’ amount of unpaid time off to deal with the issue. This would normally not be more than a few hours, or a few days at most depending on the nature of the emergency – but at the moment, we are not in a normal situation, and if childcare is genuinely not available a longer period may be reasonable.
7. Annual leave or unpaid leave
Employers could offer for employees to use their annual leave (or potentially require them to do so, provided sufficient notice is given), or to take a period of unpaid leave, but that may not always be practical or desirable for the business.
Try to work together to find a solution if possible
If the employee does not return to work and none of the other options resolve the situation, it is unlikely to be appropriate for an employer to take disciplinary action or dismiss an employee for their failure to return. This is because it could result in potential claims, such as unfair dismissal or discrimination. This does leave the potential for a stalemate, so it will be best for employers and employees to try to work together to find a solution if at all possible.
If you are an employer dealing with employees who aren’t able to come to work due to the coronavirus situation, then we can help. Please call us on 01243 836840 for a no obligation chat, or email us at [email protected].