Lockdown 3.0 is upon us and once again schools are closed and working parents find themselves having to balance childcare and home-schooling whilst trying to manage their own work and responsibilities.
For those who cannot reasonably work from home, or who may struggle with having to provide childcare at the same time as meeting the demands of their role, employers are able to consider offering furlough leave as an option.
The current Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) guidance - at the time of publishing - permits employers to furlough employees if they are unable to work, whether from home or otherwise, because they have caring responsibilities resulting from coronavirus. This includes looking after children who are at home due to school closures, as well as caring for vulnerable individuals.
Employers can claim for affected employees under the CJRS who were employed on 30 October 2020 and who had been paid a wage between 20 March 2020 and 30 October 2020. The CJRS has now been extended and is available to use until 30 April 2021.
We recognise that a number of organisations may not feel that it is appropriate to rely on CJRS at this time or in their specific circumstances (even if they have relied upon it in the past). This could be for any number of reasons which might include high workloads and key personnel being needed in the business. Additionally, from a reputational perspective, it may not be deemed an appropriate step to take for certain businesses, particularly those performing well. In such situations, furlough leave may simply not be an option.
Do employers have to agree to furlough staff with childcare concerns?
As with any form of furlough leave, the decision remains with the employer as to whether the employee should be offered the option of furlough leave. Employers will want to consider the balance of their operational requirements and the practicalities of agreeing to furlough leave. A business is unlikely to be able to offer furlough to all of its affected parents.
If it is not possible to offer furlough leave, employers should consider meeting with those affected employees to discuss their requirements such as the age of their children, whether they have any other support at home or within their childcare bubble for childcare and what their flexibility needs are. There may be other suitable alternatives as we discuss in more detail below.
Flexible furlough leave
So long as the above criteria apply, employees can alternatively enter into flexible furlough agreements under which they will work part-time and will be furloughed for the rest of the time. This may be helpful for employees who can share part-time hours with their partner or can otherwise source part-time childcare.
Employees on flexi-furlough arrangements will have to adhere to the CJRS guidance during the days/hours which are being taken as furlough leave. This means that they will not able to carry out any work for their employer during those specific days/hours and it will help employers to have a system in place to make sure this is adhered to. There is no minimum flexible furlough period so this could be a useful temporary arrangement for some. For more detail on how flexible furlough works, please read our earlier article: Flexible furlough – how it works in practice.
It may be that workers can work from home and can manage to do so whilst having their children at home, perhaps because they are older and more self-sufficient. It’s likely, now that we are instructed to “stay at home where possible” once more, that a large number of employees are already working from home where they can in any case.
As well as home-working arrangements, employers may also consider flexible working arrangements to temporarily reduce hours or to operate flexible working-hours where this might provide a workable solution. In the circumstances, employers may need to consider additional flexible working that might not ordinarily be offered but which might provide employees greater choice in terms of working patterns, for example, working compressed hours or weekend working.
Now may also be a good time to check in on any such home-working employees and see if anything else is needed to support their wellbeing. We offer some tips on how to manage this in our earlier article: Getting the balance: Homeworking and employee mental health.
Employees may be happy to take annual leave as a temporary arrangement though this is unlikely to be a long-term solution. As with usual annual leave arrangements, employers will need to agree to any time off. Employers may also consider permitting employees to purchase additional annual leave to use at this time.
Employees with at least one year of service have a statutory entitlement to take parental leave which is time off to care for or spend time with their child. This can be taken in blocks of one week per child, for a maximum of four weeks per year and 18 weeks in total before the child is 18. The time off is unpaid and again probably only a short-term solution.
Time off for dependents is intended to enable parents or carers to take emergency time off to care for dependents and is usually unpaid for a very short period. Employers may consider reviewing their policies (even as a temporary measure) to extend the amount of time, whether paid or unpaid, that can be taken during the school closure period.
Similarly, employers may have existing special care leave policies that can be reviewed to see if they can offer further flexibility to parents.
Employers may also think about offering periods of unpaid leave, though this may not be the most attractive option for many employees.
- The important thing for employers to remember is to keep communication lines open and speak to staff about what they need and what options are viable. After that, keep in touch and discuss whether those arrangements are still working for both parties.
- Flexibility is key to supporting the wellbeing of employees at this time, one size does not fit all so be prepared to adapt and be open to suggestions.
- Employers should always refer to the latest CJRS guidance before making any decisions to furlough employees. Keep in mind also the minimum requirements for furlough agreements and make sure that they seek agreement from the employee and keep a written record of the arrangement. Please get in touch if you need further advice on the CJRS and what to include in a furlough leave agreement.
The way forward is through clear communication with all staff and being as flexible as possible. If employers do wish to utilise the CJRS, it is certainly an option that can be used in these circumstances but may not be the only way to support working parents during this time.