School closures | Call for firms to offer furlough to working parents

Call for firms to offer furlough to working parents

Following recent closures of schools due to the festive period, the Government has since announced that some schools will not reopen to all students as planned this week.

Due to this ‘last-minute’ decision, the TUC is calling on employers to consider offering furlough to all parents who may be affected by “this series of chaotic statements and last-minute approach”.

All secondary schools will remain closed this week, except for the children of key workers such as NHS staff, reported the BBC. Students are expected to return on a staggered basis from January 11.

The Government’s job retention scheme allows employers to place parents who can’t work due to a lack of childcare on furlough and is available from a minimum of seven days. According to the TUC, this would allow parents to share childcare responsibilities, as this incentive could also be offered on a part-time basis.

Despite this, the TUC believes that not all bosses are aware that caring responsibilities are an acceptable reason to place staff on furlough.

The union body also added that self-employed working parents will also need support, suggesting that they should have automatic access to the self-employed income support scheme (SEISS) alongside broader improvements to the scheme.

Without this, parents who may have already been struggling with childcare could find themselves falling into financial difficulties.

Speaking on the news regarding school closures, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary at the TUC, stated that many parents will have little choice but to take unpaid leave or cut their hours down to cope with childcare.  

“With many schools closed, many families will be frantically trying to find a way to balance their work and childcare commitments,” O’Grady said.

“Without further action, many will have no choice but to cut their hours or take unpaid leave from work. This will lead to further hardship and will hit mums and single parents hardest.”

Should parents be furloughed?

While the TUC has called for this action, Charlotte Farrell, an Associate Solicitor in the employment team at Paris Smith, told HR Grapevine that employers are not obliged to furlough workers. She explained: “Employers aren’t legally obliged to furlough their employees. The furlough scheme specifically allows employers to use it for employees who cannot work due to childcare responsibilities during the pandemic, but there is no obligation on them to do so.

“There is also no formal right of appeal if an employer refuses to furlough an individual. All an employee can do in that situation is raise a grievance and put forward their case as strongly as possible.”

Facing the brunt

In September this year the TUC shared an additional report that highlighted the impact the coronavirus crisis was having on working mums. It discovered that one in six mums – mostly those in low-paid roles – had been given no choice but to reduce their working hours due to school and nursery closures.

With schools closing once again, the TUC pointed out that working mums will likely be disproportionately affected. In addition, single parents – nine out of ten of whom are women – will also be impacted as they are less likely to have someone to share the brunt.

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Farrell added that women with childcare responsibilities “may potentially be able to raise an indirect sex discrimination argument if their employer unreasonably fails to consider furlough or other options and cannot show a good business reason for their decision”.

“However, in most situations employers will be alive to this and able to show they have a good business reason for their decision which cannot be resolved in another way,” she added.

'The Government must do more'

The TUC is calling on the UK Government to make two key changes in order to support parents, adding that that the flaws in the parent leave system need to be fixed.

The TUC is calling on the Government to introduce:

  • A day one right to ten days paid parental leave. Currently parents have no statutory right to paid leave to look after their children.

  • A day one right to flexible work. Flexible working can take lots of different forms, including having predictable or set hours, working from home, job-sharing, compressed hours and term-time working.

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