Coronavirus school closures: advice for employees and employers

Kate Palmer from HR experts Peninsula gives some advice on what employees can do if childcare is affected due to Covid.

Mother working from home with kids

 

With UK coronavirus cases reportedly on the increase in some areas, working parents across the country are now facing coronavirus school closures following the Christmas break and, as a result, childcare difficulties. Although schools were expected to open in England and Scotland this month, new lockdowns have pushed this back until February at the earliest. With all this in mind, what do working parents and employers need to know?

Although medical experts insist that children generally will not get seriously ill from catching Covid-19, they can still spread it to other people who may be more vulnerable.

Isolation

For those not being homeschooled [including vulnerable children and those of key workers], children may be sent home to isolate for two weeks if it is believed that they have come into contact with the virus, which could impact upon their parent’s ability to leave the house. The Government has made clear that a parent will not be classed as ‘self-isolating’ even if their child has been asked to do so unless their child:

• exhibits symptoms or tests positive for the coronavirus

• they are experiencing symptoms or have tested positive

• they have returned from a non-quarantine exempt country abroad

• or they have been told by the NHS to self-isolate

The normal rules on self-isolation will apply if a parent in your workforce is self-isolating. Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will be payable to eligible employees, regardless of an individual’s parental status, except in cases where self-isolation is necessary as a result of travel to a non-quarantine exempt country.

Unpaid time off

Where a parent is not self-isolating but are faced with unforeseen childcaring issues, they are legally entitled to unpaid time off for dependants. The employment right to this time off is intended to be for unforeseen emergencies only,  which the coronavirus will likely fall under. The law stipulates that time off for dependants can be taken specifically where a dependant has either fallen ill, is injured or is assaulted.

Other circumstances in which this time can be taken include where arrangements for the provision of care of a dependant need to be made, where normal arrangements have been disrupted. This would include the unexpected closure of an employee’s child’s school. Currently, there is no qualifying service period required to entitle an employee to take time off work of this nature so employees who have just started a new role can still take this time off.

If parents are to take time off for dependants, they should be aware that, aside from the fact that it is unpaid, they are required to inform their employer as soon as reasonably practicable about the absence, the reason for it and the anticipated length. Employers should not reasonably refuse this time off. Employees have a right to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off, which is generally taken to be up to two days per instance. This is because the point of the time off is to make other arrangements for childcare, rather than time off actually to look after the child. However, employers may want to consider the coronavirus situation when establishing principles around a ‘reasonable’ amount of time.

Where it is clear that a longer period of time off may be needed, employers may find it beneficial to open up communication with employees about how an extended period of time off will be dealt with. It may be that employees are permitted to work from home where possible [indeed the Government lockdown guidance is that only employees who cannot reasonably work from home can go out to work], or a temporary period of other flexible working options arranged. It should be remembered that working parents can also be furloughed in response to childcare issues where necessary. However, there is no right to be furloughed; it is used at the employer’s discretion.

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