This is the question we are being asked again and again as people are coming off furlough.
Even before the latest raft of guidance for England was released this week, we have been getting a whole load of worried emails from parents coming off furlough and facing all the issues associated with going back to work, the chief of which is whether they can be sacked if they cannot return to work because they have no childcare.
The furlough scheme is supposed to cover this eventuality, but it seems, certainly from the emails we have been receiving, that many employers either misunderstand it and think it is only for businesses that cannot open due to coronavirus or are under so much pressure themselves that they cannot afford not to have key members of staff in work, even if they don’t have to pay for them.
I would be interested to find out how many people have claimed furlough because of a lack of available childcare and been successful. Our COVID-19 survey shows 11 per cent have asked to be furloughed because of a lack of available childcare, but most have been turned down and, as a result, have had to use, for instance, unpaid leave [which they can’t afford to do for long, if at all], annual leave [which is not elastic] or work around their children if this is at all possible.
There seems to be a need for better communication about how the furlough scheme works and more guidance about what employees can do if their employer just refuses to use it when they have no childcare. Can they be sacked if they can’t come in? All the guidance is a bit waffly about talking to employers and employers being socially responsible and listening to their staff. Would it be discriminatory to fire a woman because they cannot come to work due to lack of childcare, given that it is still assumed – and often still the case – that mums are the main carers? I guess we’ll have to wait for some test cases, although most people can’t afford to wait.
Parents are used to being extremely resourceful, but this is a conundrum for which there appears to be no solution. In most cases households with young children consist of parents/parent and child/ren. If households are isolated and cannot come into contact with other households, parents have to go out to work and there is no adult in the home and paid childcare is not available it is hard to magic something up. Of course, childcare is due to start reopening in the next weeks and if you can afford a nanny or have a childminder who can reopen to just your household then you may be lucky if you have to return to work before June.
The problem is that registered childminder numbers have fallen significantly in the last few years and many, many parents have not got any regular childminder or nursery that they use – they have been relying on grandparents or other family to cut costs because childcare in the UK is incredibly expensive for very young children and any kind of support only kicks in generally when kids reach three. I remember counting down the days…
From June childminders, nurseries and schools will supposedly reopen, but there is no clarity yet on how possible this is going to be for individual childcare providers and schools even before we consider parents’ huge concerns about risk. Primary schools will also only open initially to certain years and there will only be a maximum of 15 children in a class which means shifts, something that is likely to make working outside the home even more complicated.
I have no idea what the solution is because most parents I speak to don’t want to send their kids to childcare. But they also don’t want to lose their jobs. I see the potential for a lot of discriminatory treatment against parents, which is likely, let’s face it, to mean women. One thing is certain: the demand for homeworking will soar.