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Shift working has been increasing with the advent of extended hours of service seven days a week. Shift work can be a boon to parents, offering flexible working that fits around family life – if they can get the shifts they need.
But what if you sign up for a night shift to work avoid childcare costs and find yourself switched with little notice to the day shift, or vice versa? Can you refuse the changes because you can’t get childcare cover?
The important thing is to check your contract first. If it only sets out your minimum hours then employers can generally change the shift pattern, provided that the employee is still being asked to work their contracted number of hours. If it specifies certain hours then you would need to be consulted about and approve any change.
In addition, shift workers, like other employees, are protected by statutory rights. Amongst other things, these give employees the right to request a change to their working arrangements, including any shift patterns, to allow them to work in a way that better suits their lifestyle. Anyone can now request flexible working to secure the hours they would like, although they can only make one request within any 12-month period and need to ensure that they have considered how this might affect the employer.
The employer can turn this request down for any of eight reasons, but must handle the request reasonably, for instance, giving a right of appeal. It is a good idea to look at the eight reasons and, if you think your employer could use one of them against you, to address any reasonable concerns they might have, for instance, about lack of cover.
Even if the employer can satisfy one of those business reasons and properly refuse a request to change shift patterns or to not work new shift patterns, working mothers are protected by anti-discrimination legislation as it is assumed they have the main responsibility for caring for children.
As women are generally the main childcarers in a family, any decision to refuse a flexible working request from a woman with childcare responsibilities may be indirect discrimination. This occurs when an employer implements a working practice, such as a change to shift patterns, which has a detrimental impact on a particular woman and women in general as the main carers. In these circumstances, the employer has to show that it has a legitimate business aim in changing shift patterns – for instance, meeting customer demand better – and that this couldn’t be achieved in a less discriminatory way.
On a practical level, a solution often comes down to negotiation between employer and employee, taking into account the needs of both and considering all the options available. As an employee, it is important to set out your issues and concerns, including whether the change you need is only temporary, to emphasise the benefits to your employer of your solution and to show you have taken into consideration any problems that your manager may have beforehand.