Revised guidance issued at the weekend suggests that you can now ask your employer to furlough you if you can’t work because you can’t get childcare.
The coronavirus is throwing up all sorts of questions around work and childcare. One of the big ones was around whether people who were unable to cover childcare could claim furlough status. Until the weekend, this was very unclear. Different organisations were saying different things.
The Government has now updated its guidance on its website. It now states: “If you are unable to work, including from home, due to caring responsibilities arising from coronavirus (Covid-19), such as caring for children who are at home as a result of school and childcare facilities closing, or caring for a vulnerable individual in your household, then you should speak to your employer about whether they plan to place staff on furlough.“ It adds that funds will start from the day an employee is placed on furlough, which can be backdated to 1 March 2020.
Furlough status – whereby workers get 80% of salary up to a cap of £2.5K a month – has to be agreed by employer and employee and the employer has to apply for it. More details can be found here.
Although it puts the onus on employers and is, as with all things coronavirus, ambiguous, the updated guidance will come as some relief to employees who were finding it increasingly difficult to cover childcare. These included key workers or parents of children with special needs whose nursery or school has been closed and who found that the nearest alternative was difficult to access and too expensive.
It will also come as a relief to parents who have had to take unpaid leave to cover childcare, which is clearly a situation that cannot continue for very long. The only other alternative was annual leave, which, again, is not infinite. The problem comes in trying to ascertain in what circumstances it might apply. For instance, would it cover parents trying to work from home with toddlers present? That could be an awful lot of parents.
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There is still a lack of clarification on informal carers. workingmums.co.uk has had many, many emails from parents worried about whether they will be fined if they send their children to grandparents under 70 who are healthy. The current guidance says not to send them to grandparents over 70 [this was interpreted by some as meaning all grandparents because the assumption is that all are elderly] or those who are at risk. However, it is clearly the intention of the Government to reduce social contact as much as possible. So perhaps the advice is deliberately vague. We know some key workers are using grandparents and a new scheme whereby medical students offer free childcare for NHS workers – this is generally because they have no alternative. The focus needs to be on keeping everyone as safe as possible – and that includes key workers’ children – and on saving lives.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies produced a briefing last week on childcare issues for key workers. It highlighted the things we already know – that key workers are more likely to be female, more likely to include single parents, that many use grandparents to save on childcare costs. It recommended that the Government could relax eligibility restrictions on the free entitlement to childcare for key workers, so providing income to early years providers and potentially valuable support to key workers. For instance, they suggested increasing the entitlement for key working parents from 30 to 40 hours, extending the two-year-old entitlement to key workers (not just the 40% most disadvantaged) or allowing it to cover younger children. Other suggestions included increasing the limit for Tax Free Childcare for key workers and enabling schools to take in younger siblings from age two.
The problem is that this only came out last week and key workers have been asking us about childcare issues for weeks. And this is only a suggestion. The response by Government is not keeping up with demand because the Government doesn’t appear to be fully abreast of the extent of the problem and how vital childcare is to enabling parents to work.