With schools closing again, many employees with school-aged children will be faced with having to supervise them with remote learning, presenting significant challenges when it comes to maintaining usual ability to work. But what are your options for supporting these employees, or dealing with the situation when it becomes too challenging?
For some people they simply cannot manage any work while supervising children, either because of the age or needs of their children, the extent of additional home support they have, or because of the nature of the role. For others it becomes about quantity, timeliness or quality of work. There are a number of options available:
Key worker provision
Your employees should be working from home if it is at all possible for them to do so. If it is genuinely not possible, they may fall under key worker provision and therefore be entitled to send their children to school, so one option will be to look into that. You can give your employees a letter confirming their key worker status.
You could agree a temporary or permanent variation to your employee’s hours of work, either in terms of number of hours or times. You wouldn’t be able to impose this, but as part of a discussion about what will work for both parties, it could be an option. Normally a flexible working request results in a permanent change to terms and conditions but it’s certainly possible for both parties to agree a temporary variation.
In line with the above, if your worker was on your payroll prior to 30 October 2020, you should be able to achieve a reduction in hours using the flexible furlough scheme, which will minimise the financial impact for them.
Flexibility around delivery
Many employers are adopting an approach of being flexible about managing performance, and looking at overall deliverables and essential targets rather than worrying too much about exactly what hours someone is logged on for. This requires (and also fosters) a relationship of trust; you are not penalising your employee for temporary circumstances outside their control, and they are doing whatever they can manage.
Sometimes a temporary change in duties will make the situation manageable, or extension of deadlines, greater support from colleagues, a ‘pause’ on unnecessary projects – it will depend on the role, but engaging in open discussion with the employee in question and looking for solutions together can result in some creative options to minimise the impact.
If the employee has sufficient annual leave, they could take some time off using that, by agreement. It means they don’t lose out financially, and it means over the year as a whole, they are not absent longer than they otherwise would. However, they may not wish to use up lots of annual leave as it means they won’t get a break later on in the year.
Employees who have completed one year’s service are entitled to up to four weeks’ unpaid parental leave in respect of each child each year, to a maximum of a total of 18 weeks. They are supposed to give 21 days’ notice, but there is nothing stopping you waiving that requirement, in circumstances where the employee is in a position where they cannot come to work anyway.
Emergency Dependants’ leave
Employees are also entitled to reasonable time off on an unpaid basis to deal with unexpected or unforeseen emergencies, including childcare breakdown or issues at school. Clearly the lack of notice of the schools closing would mean the situation falls under this provision on an immediate basis, however the purpose of emergency dependants’ leave where the situation is clearly ongoing would be to make alternative arrangements for care, so a day or two would be suitable.
As well as using flexible furlough, you can also place eligible employees on full furlough if the reason they are unable to work is coronavirus related childcare problems.
Alongside the various statutory provisions above, you can also agree between you and your employee a period of unpaid leave to cover the situation.
You should discuss their individual circumstances with each employee affected, and try to reach an arrangement that will work on a temporary basis for everyone. It is enormously stressful for working parents and as the situation is likely to be fairly temporary in the scheme of things, retaining good staff by being supportive and understanding is likely to pay dividends in terms of goodwill later.
It’s also worth considering the discrimination angle – the majority of workers negatively impacted by school closures are women, and there is a risk that employers who come down unduly harshly, dependent on specific circumstances, may find themselves at risk of an indirect discrimination claim, if they are seen to be applying a policy that disproportionately negatively impacts their female workforce.
If you’d like some assistance with options for employees unable to work due to school closures, do get in touch.