The closure of schools in Scotland until at least the start of February, and longer in England, means that working parents are once again facing the challenges of juggling work and childcare commitments. So, what are the options?

Furlough

Employees who are unable to work due to caring responsibilities resulting from COVID-19 can be furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), including those caring for children who are at home as a result of school and childcare facilities closing. This has been confirmed in the updated furlough guidance here. The CJRS has been extended until the end of April 2021.

Some important points to be aware of:

  • To be eligible for a CJRS grant neither the employee nor the employer needs to have used the furlough scheme before. However, employees must have been on your PAYE payroll by 23.59 on 30 October 2020.
  • The government expects that publicly funded organisations will not use the CJRS, but partially publicly funded organisations may be eligible where their private revenues have been disrupted.
  • Employees can either be furloughed for all their usual hours, or they can work part-time and be furloughed for the remainder of their usual hours (flexible furlough).
  • For unworked hours the government will pay 80% of employees' wages, capped at £2,500 per month (with the cap being proportional to hours not worked). The scheme grant does not cover any national insurance or pension contributions.
  • It is at the employer's discretion whether to agree to an employee's request to be furloughed. Any agreement must be made in writing, or confirmed in writing by the employer (which can be via email); and retained for at least five years.
  • Detailed guidance on the CJRS is available to Workbox users at Furlough: November 2020 – April 2021.

Parental leave

Employees can request parental leave if they meet the eligibility conditions (which include having at least one year's service) and give appropriate notice (usually at least 21 days' notice, but you might be prepared to waive this in the circumstances). In most cases, this would entitle them to take four weeks' leave per child (under 18) in any year (provided they have not already reached the maximum of 18 weeks in total). This will be unpaid, unless you offer an enhanced parental leave scheme which includes a right to pay.

Flexible working

Employees might want to seek to negotiate a reduction in hours, or to work outside of their normal working hours, if that would allow them to better balance work and childcare. This could be approached informally, or as a formal flexible working request.

In terms of the statutory flexible working regime, requests must be dealt with in a reasonable manner; and can only be refused on one of the statutory grounds. Be alert to any potential discrimination risks in responding to flexible working requests. Unless specifically agreed otherwise, revised terms and conditions apply permanently - therefore agree how long the arrangements will last for.

Time off for dependants

Employees have a statutory right to 'time off for dependants': they are entitled to a 'reasonable' amount of time off to take action which is 'necessary' in the particular circumstances. Time taken off under the statutory right is unpaid, unless you have a policy which provides for payment (or the employee's contract entitles them to payment).

This type of statutory leave is usually intended for short periods of absence to resolve an unexpected situation. In the past, employees may have used this leave for a short time whilst children were unwell, until they could arrange alternative childcare. The current exceptional circumstances could justify a longer period of absence being classed as time off for dependants, however, this may vary case to case and depend on the degree to which the need for time off was unexpected.

Annual leave / unpaid leave

Employees could request to take some annual leave – which would require to be paid at their normal rate of pay. You might be prepared to waive the notice requirements in the circumstances. Working parents could also ask to take a period of unpaid leave.