Supporting working parents in the school holidays

With the school holidays now upon us, solicitor Vicky Schollar looks at how employers can help manage and support working parents.

Schools need to do more to fit in with parents’ working schedules, according to a recent government report (More affordable childcare), including arranging sleepovers during the school holidays, offering extended hours and opening for more weeks in the year. But is it just up to schools to provide more options, or should employers be more flexible too?

Established rights

There are a number of statutory mechanisms employees can use to assist them with their childcare commitments. The most well known of these is the right to request flexible working, which is a right to request only and not a right to work flexibly. A request can be made by an eligible employee and needs to be in a prescribed form, considered within certain deadlines and can only be refused on certain grounds. This is likely to be a preferred option when a long-term solution to childcare issues is required, as only one request can be made every 12 months.

Another option for parents with more than a year’s service is parental leave. Parental leave generally allows each parent to take up to 18 weeks unpaid leave per child before the child’s 5th birthday. Such leave must be taken in blocks of one week and therefore may be a preferred option for parents who need to arrange childcare during the school holidays and who have used up their holiday entitlement. Parental leave must be granted unless there are sound business reasons why it cannot be taken at the time requested.

A parent who faces a sudden and short-term issue with childcare can take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off to care for their child (known as time off for dependants), irrespective of their length of service. This leave is meant to cover unplanned “emergencies” and so could not be used for a pre-booked hospital appointment, for example, but could be used where childcare arrangements break down. As the use of this type of leave is relatively limited, it would not assist generally with school holidays, but could be useful where, for example, a child cannot attend a holiday club because they are ill.

Informal working arrangements

As well as the statutory rights listed above there is no reason why an employer cannot agree to informal flexible working requests, for example, allowing an employee to work around the hours of a school holiday club and either ask them to make up the hours or reduce their pay accordingly. A potential issue with adopting an informal approach is that it may be difficult to ensure consistency and there are no limits on the number of requests that can be made.

Potential claims

Employers may be concerned about the risk of litigation if a flexible working request is refused. A female employee may seek to claim that they have been discriminated against if, for example, an employer has a requirement that staff must work full time. A male employee who makes an unsuccessful flexible working request may also claim he has been discriminated against if a similar application by a female colleague would have been allowed. In addition, an employee can complain to an employment tribunal if they believe their employer has not followed the statutory procedure on flexible working.

An employee who is refused parental leave or time off to care for a dependant, or who suffers a detriment for having done so, can, in certain circumstances, complain to an employment tribunal. Further, an employee who is found to have been dismissed for having taken or seeking to take parental leave or time off for dependants will be treated as having been automatically unfairly dismissed.

Employers need to be wary of restricting career opportunities for those who work flexibly. A growing number of employees feel their promotion prospects are/will be hindered if they take time off for childcare, and this could be discriminatory.

Employers’ considerations

Employers should ensure that they are familiar with the rights of parents so they are well placed to deal with requests for time off and flexible working. In addition, they should ensure they are consistent in their approach and keeping a record of employees’ requests and their response will be helpful in this. As the law is constantly changing, employers should check their family-friendly policies regularly to make sure they are up to date and, at the same time, make sure all employees are aware of policy contents.

Vicky Schollar is a solicitor in the employment team at Blake Lapthorn

FAQs on family-friendly rights from XpertHR

What requirements are there on an employee to inform the employer that he or she is taking time off for dependants?

Which employees are eligible for the statutory right to request flexible working?

How should an employer respond to a request for flexible working?

What are the procedures for taking parental leave?

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