Employment Law

Employees affected by School Closures

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Employees affected by School Closures

On 18th March 2020, the government announced that schools in the UK are to shut from Friday until further notice as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Schools will close except for looking after the children of key workers and vulnerable children leaving parents up and down the country with limited options for childcare. Employers can expect an immediate and significant leave requests from employees affected by school closures and a rise in the numbers of those requesting homeworking.
When it comes to time away from work to care for children, employees are legally entitled to take emergency dependant’s leave, which is exactly for that purpose: time off work to deal with an emergency involving a dependant.
This advice addresses some of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to employees taking leave to look after their children, including entitlement and pay arrangements. If you want any further advice on handling the impact of school closures on your business, please contact your Employment Advisor on 01274 864999.

Who is entitled to take dependants’ leave?

Employees have the right to take a “reasonable” amount of unpaid time off work to take “necessary” action to deal with particular situations affecting their dependants.
The right applies to employees only. Workers and the self-employed are excluded. Employees have a right to take dependant leave from day one of their employment, whether they are engaged full time, part time or otherwise. The right applies to both male and female employees.

When can time off be taken?

The Employment Rights Act 1996 provides that an employee is entitled to take reasonable time-off where is it necessary:

  • To provide assistance if a dependant falls ills, gives birth or is injured
  • To make care arrangements for the provision of care for a dependant who is ill or injured
  • In consequence of the death of a dependant
  • To deal with the unexpected disruption, termination or breakdown of arrangements for the care of a dependant
  • To deal with an unexpected incident which involved the employee’s child during school hours

The decision to close schools is clearly an emergency situation and will fall under the final category of emergency.
Strictly speaking, the purpose of dependants leave is to deal with an unexpected emergency, not for ongoing care, so for example if an employee’s child is ill with chicken pox and will not be able to go to school for two weeks, the employee is not entitled to take the whole fortnight off to care for their child; they are expected to use emergency dependants’ leave to make alternative arrangements for care. Although this is the normal position, employers should consider being flexible when it comes to employees who may need extended time off to look after dependants during the school closure period, especially when alternative childcare measures may simply not be possible.

Is the leave paid or unpaid?

The legal entitlement is to unpaid leave, but many employers choose to pay employees who are absent for emergencies involving children.

How often can employees take dependants leave?

There is no limit on the number of occasions an employee is entitled to take dependants’ leave, and each situation should be looked at on an individual basis in terms of whether it is reasonable.
Having said that, where for example there are two parents available, it is reasonable to expect employees to share dealing with emergencies between them, rather than placing the burden on only one of their employers, so if this is happening it would usually be reasonable to raise the concern and check that your employee isn’t taking the lion’s share of time off in respect of the couple’s children in emergencies.

Can a request for dependants leave be refused?

No. Even if there is a critical situation at work, if there’s an emergency at home then there’s an emergency at home, and the idea of this leave entitlement is that it applies when there is no other option.

What if my employee wants to remain home to look after their children but wants to be paid?

Employees can choose to take paid annual leave to cover any time at home.
Employees can also made a request for homeworking (if this is something that you can accommodate) however, employers should give careful consideration to how productive an employee is likely to be at home before agreeing to this based on the type of work which they are employed to do and their situation at home.

Can I put an employee who needs to stay at home to look after children on sick pay?

As it stands, no. Sick pay is reserved for sickness absence or, periods of advised self-isolation.
Please contact your Employment Advisor on 01274 864999 for further advice but in the meantime, we hope that this guidance will assist.

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