Review of 2020 part one

In the first part of our review of the year, we focus on the months from January to April, the period leading up to the lockdown and beyond.

A woman sits at her desk with hand sanitiser and face mask in the foreground

 

workingmums.co.uk’s review of 2020 is in three parts. Today’s part covers January to April, the period leading up to lockdown and beyond.

January

There was a lot of activity on flexible working, sexual harassment in ongoing response to #MeToo and on gender pay equality.

On the policy front, the Government announced that new regulations which will enable parents who have lost a child to take two weeks’ statutory leave will come into effect in April. The Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay Regulations, which will be known as Jack’s Law in memory of Jack Herd whose mother Lucy campaigned on the issue, will implement a statutory right to a minimum of two weeks’ leave for all employed parents if they lose a child under the age of 18, or suffer a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy, irrespective of how long they have worked for their employer.

On the flexible working front, Working Families and Bright Horizon’s 2020 Modern Families Index says almost half of working parents say the boundaries between home and the workplace have blurred due to the advent of modern communications, with those working outside their contracted hours reporting a negative impact on their families. A poll by KnowYourMoney.co.uk found over two fifths of managers are reluctant to hire people who want flexible working despite demand for it increasing. On a more positive note, the Government announced a trial of flexible rail fares over the next year to help part-time and hybrid workers.

The Better Work in the Gig Economy report from digital think tank Doteveryone called for gig workers to have a greater voice in the design of the platforms they work for, a minimum wage which takes into account additional expenses and access to training. It said that for many gig workers gig working apps have become a trap, requiring them to commit ever-more time to the platforms in order to make the work a financially viable option, and it called for policy change and platform redesign that champion three pillars of better work: financial security, dignity and dreams. Meanwhile, more than 60 of Greater Manchester’s employers announced plans to ban zero-hour contracts and pay over the minimum wage as part of their commitment to the mayor’s “Good Employment Charter”. The employers include Workspace Design & Build who have abolished zero-hours contracts for staff, including labourers. They are being given a contract of a minimum of 35 hours per week.

Mental health continued to be an issue for workers. A report from Deloitte and Mind found poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion each year – an increase of 16% since the last estimate of £37bn in 2016, with little improvement being note. It also found that nine per cent of employees who disclosed a mental health problem were dismissed, demoted or disciplined, while only 44% would feel comfortable talking to a line manager about their mental health. An earlier survey by Investors in People found that more than half of people say they will be looking for a new job in 2020 and 24% were unhappy at work, a 10% increase on last year’s survey.

On gender equality, the Office for National Statistics noted a continued increase in employment levels, including women working full time. In a big month for equal pay, journalist Samira Ahmed won her equal pay case against the BBC. The London Central Employment Tribunal determined that the presenting work of Ahmed on BBC’s Newswatch programme was equal to that of Jeremy Vine on Points of View. However, in less positive news a report the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy found women apprentices face a gender pay gap of 6%, are more likely to be paid under the minimum amount and less likely to receive formal training while a report from the Fawcett Society says the UK is “generations away” from achieving gender equality as women remain seriously underrepresented in top jobs across society. A study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research found wage transparency laws – such as the UK’s gender pay audits – can reduce the gender pay gap at a faster rate by slowing wage growth for male employees and causing an increase in the hiring and promoting of women within firms.

The Government Equalities Office launched a survey on sexual harassment which it says will feed into government policy. It follows publication by the Equality and Human Rights Commission of new guidance on harassment, discrimination and victimisation. The new guidance explains employers’ legal responsibilities and the practical steps they should take to prevent and respond to harassment and victimisation at work. Meanwhile, a Swedish study showed women managers – especially middle managers – were more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment than those in more junior positions.

And on diversity, a report from the Financial Reporting Council highlighted limited reporting on diversity and an absence of clear targets and plans and called on companies to improve their governance practices and reporting if they are to demonstrate their positive impact on the economy and wider society.

In other news, a report by the Resolution Foundation found the impact of Universal Credit (UC) would be felt very differently in different places, with many families in the poorest areas losing money as a result. Meanwhile, a University of Edinburgh study found young children of working single mums are less at risk of having severe socio-emotional problems than those whose mums do not work.

And a TUC/GQR poll found nearly a fifth of workers had been told they were not allowed to discuss their pay with co-workers. Eighteen per cent of those polled are subject to pay secrecy or ‘gagging’ clauses. The TUC called for a ban on the clauses which it said prevent workers from challenging unfair pay, discrimination and excessive top-to-bottom pay ratios.

February

February was dominated by reports on equal pay and women in senior management positions.

On gender equality, a Fawcett Society report finds four in 10 people do not know that women have a right to equal pay for work of equal value and only 36% know women have a legal right to ask male colleagues about their salary if they suspect pay discrimination. The survey comes as the Society launches a new Bill which would give women who suspect they are not getting equal pay a ‘Right to Know’ what a male comparator is paid.

Meanwhile, the Hampton-Alexander Review says a third of all board positions in the UK’s FTSE 100 companies are now held by women. However, the figures show much of the increase in women on boards has come from non-executive directors and that there are few women in key executive roles such as finance director where just 15% of FTSE 100 posts are occupied by women. Moreover, nearly one in five FTSE 350 companies have been sent letters from the Investment Association (IA) and the Hampton-Alexander Review about the lack of gender diversity on their board and executive committees.

On childcare, Coram Family and Childcare’s 20th annual Childcare Survey said parents in the UK were paying 5% more for childcare for the under-twos than they were a year ago. And figures out from HMRC showed that, although the number of families benefiting from tax-free childcare, one of the Government’s main childcare policies has risen in the last year, just one in six eligible families was benefiting from it.

On flexible working, Timewise said the number of part-time employees in manager-level or senior jobs in the UK exceeded one million for the first time, representing one in six managers. However, another survey from Deloitte found that, although the vast majority of workers say they would benefit from work flexibility, many are still worried that it will affect their career progression. Meanwhile, a report from single parents charity Gingerbread said job re-design has the potential to open up progression opportunities for single parents and improve their families’ lives. February also saw the publication of the annual report of the Women and Work All Party Parliamentary Group which called on the Government to convene a ‘Good Work’ taskforce to work across Government departments to examine how to make work inclusive and accessible for all.

In the courts, the Supreme Court turned down a request for an appeal hearing on Shared Parental Pay. The appeal was filed against a High Court ruling that it is not discriminatory for employers to offer enhanced maternity pay while only offering statutory pay to staff taking shared parental leave.

In other news: a report says HR needs to metaphorically ‘hug and not squeeze’ line managers if organisations want to lower absence rates and stimulate productivity growth. And the Government confirmed its plans to push ahead with the extension of off-payroll legislation [IR35] to the private sector in April despite much protest. Meanwhile, a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found over half of people [56%] in poverty are in a working family, compared to 39% 20 years ago. It said that four million children were living in poverty.

March

March was the month the Government announced a national lockdown and the furlough scheme, followed by a scheme to provide finance for some of the self employed. Concerns were already being expressed about freelancers and other self employed people who could not access government funding and about recent employees who had missed out on the furlough scheme. Almost half a million people registered to claim Universal Credit and pressure mounted on the Government to increase benefits and statutory sick pay in the face of the coronavirus.

The same week lockdown was announced, equalities minister Liz Truss announced that gender pay gap reporting was being suspended. There was much confusion about the guidance, particularly with regard to who constituted a key worker and could therefore gain access to childcare. Schools and childcare were closed to all but key workers and vulnerable children. Working families campaigners called on employers to have sensible conversations with working parents about what level of work is possible given the closure of schools and nurseries due to Covid-19. The BBC reported that key workers were being forced to take time off work because they did not have access to childcare. One of the problems was that nurseries said it was not financially viable to stay open for small numbers of children. They also said staff needed better protection from the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Maternity Action called on the Government to provide urgent clarification of its coronavirus-related advice on social distancing for pregnant women and to take immediate steps to mitigate the potentially significant financial consequences for low-income pregnant women who follow the advice and self-isolate.

As Covid-19 kicked in, there was a big focus on best practice, with the Social Market Foundation suggesting companies should sign up to a pledge to pay more tax and treat workers fairly in exchange for emergency support during the crisis. It says those companies which fail to uphold “standards of good conduct” could be named and shamed and even prohibited from bidding for public contracts.

The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development and Simplyhealth highlighted mental health as an area of concern. It said only 31 per cent of managers were thought to have the confidence to have sensitive discussions around mental health and signpost staff to expert sources They warned that employers needed to act now to help prevent their employees from being at serious risk of mental ill health during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 2020 Budget featured a large number of measures to support the economy in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, but while there was plenty of spending on health, education and roads, the Chancellor had no extra money for childcare. However, the Government announced plans for parents of babies needing neonatal care to receive up to 12 weeks’ extra paid leave.

In other news, the Government decided to delay the changes to IR35 in the private sector due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Before the lockdown was announced the National Audit Office said the Government should do more to make parents in disadvantaged areas aware of its childcare support, given take-up of free early education and childcare places and the quality of childcare providers was lower in the most deprived areas of England.

A Save the Children report highlighted design flaws in the way Universal Credit supports families with childcare which it said are forcing single mums to pay up to £1,400 a month in nursery bills upfront, before waiting up to a month to be reimbursed. And a Pregnant then Screwed survey found almost two thirds of parents with children under three who returned to work either worked fewer hours, had changed jobs or stopped working due to childcare costs.

Meanwhile, a report from Morgan McKinley found that over half of female professionals believe their gender has negatively affected their progression opportunities at some point in their career. The report highlighted large differences between male and female perceptions of gender equality. And a TUC report stated that the average woman effectively works for free for two months of the year compared to the average man.

In other news, workingmums.co.uk published its Best Practice Report to share best practice in flexible working and women’s career progression and the European Commission moved ahead with proposed legislation for a 40% quota of women in non-executive board-member positions in publicly listed companies, with the exception of small and medium enterprises.

April

In the month the furlough portal scheme went live, sharp rises in homeworking and short-term working were reported as were increases in mental and physical ill health related to lockdown. Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that women were about one third more likely to work in a sector that was shut down than men and there were calls from Working Families for more support for parents having to care for children while working from home. A survey of more than 300 employers by People Management found 65 per cent were concerned about employees’ ability to balance home working with parenting commitments.

By 5th April, 27 per cent of the workforce was furloughed. There were calls to reform the furlough scheme to support short-time working and an announcement of free online skills courses for furloughed workers. In a month of tweaks to Government guidance, the Government clarified that furloughed workers planning to take paid parental or adoption leave would be entitled to pay based on their usual earnings rather than a furloughed pay rate.

On childcare, a childcare.co.uk survey showed over 15% of childcare providers said they could permanently close due to Covid-19. The Government announced that local authorities could have greater flexibility over how they distributed free early years entitlements so that they could move the money from childcare settings which were closed to those that remained open for key workers’ and vulnerable children. Childcare providers had earlier expressed anger about last-minute furlough guidance changes which made it difficult for them to calculate their finances. Meanwhile, the Welsh government said it would fund free childcare for key workers and the Competition and Markets Authority said it would investigate childcare providers and others over concerns around charging for childcare when parents were unable to access it during lockdown

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists published updated guidance on health and safety for pregnant women during the pandemic, clarifying that pregnant women should only continue working in direct patient-facing roles when they have had a proper risk assessment. Maternity Action wrote to the Government about fears that self-employed parents who had given birth during the last three years could see their income penalised under the Government’s income support scheme for those affected by the coronavirus crisis.

On gender equality, the Women and Equalities Committee called on the Government to publish the equalities assessment of the emergency legislation dealing with Covid-19. However, minister Liz Truss said publication would have a “chilling” effect. She also calls for more women to appear in Government briefings ‘tokenism’.

By the end of April, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development had published a return to work guide giving advice to employers about the issues they need to consider with regard to the relaxation of lockdown. Meanwhile, the TUC highlighted concerns around the return to work with a survey showing 40 per cent of workers and recently unemployed anxious about returning to the normal place of work, including nearly half of women.

In other news, a CBRE report said the impact of the pandemic was likely to permanently change workspaces and provide more flexibility to workers in terms of space and time. It was also reported that there had been a 400% increase in Universal Credit claims since March and that job vacancies had fallen by 42% since lockdown.

Covid testing was extended to those who couldn’t work from home and the Government updated furlough guidance for those returning from statutory leave. A new parental bereavement leave scheme came into effect and applied to any child who dies on or after 6th April. And the Government revamped its loans for businesses struggling due to the coronavirus.

The Law Commission called for reforms of the Employment Tribunal system, including doubling the time limit for bringing all types of employment tribunal claims to six months and allowing tribunals to hear complaints by employees who they are working over agreed working time limits.

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Finance Bill Sub-Committee said IR35 – the Government’s framework to tackle tax avoidance by those in ‘disguised employment’ – needed a complete rethink because it was “riddled with problems, unfairnesses and unintended consequences”.

*Part two: May to August: lockdown is relaxed can be found here. Read part three here.



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