What is unpaid leave and how do I take it?

What can you do over the summer if you don’t have childcare?


Child moulds from plasticine on table. Hands with plasticine.

Childcare is hugely difficult at the moment and, with the Government encouraging people to go back to work in August with some nurseries still closed or operating on reduced hours, few holiday playschemes around and restrictions still in place for grandparents who are not living in a bubble – particularly those in areas of local lockdowns, many parents are really struggling to keep their jobs.

The Government guidance allows for employees who have previously been furloughed to seek furlough – whether full or part time – if they have no childcare available. However, we know many employers are turning this down, particularly now that they will have to start contributing to the furlough scheme, and there appears little employees can do if they say no.

The guidance also suggests using annual leave – which you could ask to be brought forward and which you continue to accrue on furlough – or unpaid parental leave. Putting aside whether parents can afford weeks on unpaid leave, it may be a better option than losing your job and you may be eligible for benefits, ranging from Universal Credit to increases in tax credits if you already claim them. Bear in mind that the earnings of your partner – if you have one – may affect your eligibility for benefits. You can check your eligibility on the online calculator here.

So what is unpaid parental leave?

Parental Leave can be taken up to a child’s 18th birthday. After completing one year’s continuous service with an employer, an employee is entitled to 18 weeks unpaid parental leave for each child born or adopted. You can take this leave straight after the child is born or placed for adoption or following a period of maternity leave.

In order to take parental leave you will need to make a request to your employer giving at least 21 days’ notice of the date on which you intend to start the leave. Your employer may ask for this notice to be given in writing. If you wish to take parental leave straight after your child is born or adopted, you should give notice 21 days before the beginning of the expected week of birth or placement. If this is not possible (i.e. if your child is born prematurely or you are given less than 21 days’ notice of placement) you should give notice to your employer as soon as possible.

Provided you give the correct notice to your employer and you qualify for parental leave, you should be able to take it at any time. Employers may waive the notice period given the unusual circumstances we are in.

You should not take “odd” days off, unless your child is disabled or your employer agrees otherwise – Parental leave should be taken in blocks or multiples of a week (based on your working pattern). You cannot take more than four weeks during any year per child.

Whilst you are on parental leave you will remain employed and some terms of your contract still apply, such as contractual notice and redundancy terms.

Emergency time off for dependents

This is a statutory regulation that allows an employee to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of unpaid leave in order to care for a child in case of emergency. ‘Reasonable’ is not defined in employment law. This unpaid leave is deemed to be available for short-term emergencies and also to enable the carer to arrange alternative childcare/care for the dependant.

Under section 57A of Employment Rights Act 1996 there are no limits on how many times you can take time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependent. However, the law is clear that you can’t have time off if you knew about the situation beforehand e.g. if one of your children had a doctor’s appointment that you knew about weeks in advance.

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