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Working parents taking time off to be at home with sick children is nothing new. However, we are all short staffed and with the pandemic not over it is often children who are self isolating as they have contracted COVID-19.

Time off for Family Emergencies

Circumstances that may give rise to needing unpaid time off include:

  • Where an employee must attend to unexpected problems with a child
  • where child-care arrangements break down

These are covered by time off for dependents rules. It should be remembered that it is a right to unpaid time off to resolve the issue and while not defined in terms of the length of time, one should expect the employee to be back at work within a day or two.  It would not cover a parent needing to be home for 10 days to be with a self isolating child. Those exercising their right to time off for dependents have the right not to suffer a detriment for taking the leave.

Parental Leave

For those issues that cannot be resolved as quickly, there is Parental Leave.

To be eligible for parental leave, employees need to have worked for their employer for one year and have one qualifying child. They are entitled to take 18 weeks’ unpaid parental leave before their child’s 18th birthday. An employee has 18 weeks leave for each qualifying child they have. Unless the child is subject to disability living allowance or PIP, the leave can only be taken in blocks of 1 week and at time and a maximum of 4 weeks can be taken in any one year per child. If the employer can’t authorise the parental leave request they are entitled to offer an alternative.

What other options exist?

For those situations where neither of the above will work, and where a permanent solution is needed the employer can consider if the employee ought to exercise the right to request flexible working. Provided the employee has worked for their employer continuously for at least 26 weeks, they have the right to make a request for flexible working.

Such requests can be made by employees for any reason and must be made in writing. However, only one request can be made in any 12-month period. An employer does not legally have to agree to this and can justify the rejection of a request for flexible working if there are legitimate business grounds to do so.

It is the right to request a change NOT a right to get the change the employee wants. Employers can also accommodate requests for flexible working made outside the statutory scheme if they wish to do so.

If this doesn’t resolve what is now a high amount of time off to look after children?

Speak to the employee and see if any of the options above might help or whether there might be some other avenue that might be explored.

Ultimately, if an arrangement cannot be sorted out, and an employee is losing too much time off for a sick child then it may be reasonable to handle it as a capability matter. The reason why this would be preferable to discipline is because it is unlikely that the employee is deliberately choosing to be off work. They may be being told by other parties that their work is less important and that they are the only ones who should provide childcare when arrangements break down.  The employee may not be aware of the risk to their continued employment if they do not attend work regularly.  The Capability Procedure gives the employer a framework to discuss their concerns with the employee and to encourage them to improve.

If you need any assistance with managing an employee experiencing childcare problems please contact us on 01527 909436.