Can employees take unpaid leave to look after their children?

Kate Palmer gives advice on your rights around parental leave for school holidays.



As the school holidays come round with great regularity, employers often find themselves inundated with requests for staff wanting time off to spend with their children. Whilst most employees will be familiar with their entitlement to paid annual leave, there can often become confusion around their right to unpaid leave during this time and it is important to have a firm grasp of this.

Some employees may believe that the statutory right to time off for dependants allows them to take an unrestricted amount of unpaid time off to care for their children during the school holidays, including the half term holiday. However, this is not the case. This right is in fact reserved for times of emergency, rather than pre-planned events, and in practice only allows for leave of one to two days.

However, there is the potential that some employees will be able to take a period of unpaid parental leave during the holidays to look after their children. Employees have the ability to take up to 18 weeks of parental leave for the purposes of caring for a child under the age of 18. This right will apply in relation to each of the employee’s children and individuals will need to have at least one year’s continuous service with their current employer to qualify.

Parental leave can only usually be taken in one-week blocks unless it is required to care for a child who qualifies as disabled in which case it may be taken in blocks of a day. The legislation also allows for a maximum of four weeks’ leave per child to be taken during a particular year, which means this is unlikely to cover the duration of all the school holidays. However, employers may choose to let staff take more than four weeks per year if they wish.

When requesting parental leave an employee is required to provide at least 21 days’ notice. However, this does not necessarily guarantee that the leave will be granted. Employers have the ability to postpone requests for parental leave if they feel that business operations would be unduly disrupted by taking leave at the time requested. Any leave postponed must be taken within six months of the date the leave was originally requested.

Aside from these statutory rights, some employers may offer staff the ability to take additional unpaid leave for a number of circumstances, including to look after their children during the school holidays. As this is not a statutory requirement, it will not be guaranteed. Employers will be free to set their own rules on this and these are likely to be contained within any relevant workplace policy.

In summary, parental leave offers employees the best possibility of taking unpaid time off during the school holidays. When dealing with requests for parental leave, or for additional unpaid time off via their own workplace policy, employers should consider these with an open mind and try to ensure a favourable solution for all parties.

*Kate Palmer is Associate Director of Advisory at Peninsula which provides HR and health & safety support for small businesses.

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