Coronavirus childcare: Is there a right to time off?

With more businesses looking to reopen over the coming weeks, Citizens Advice has set out what parents and guardians can do if they’re struggling to juggle childcare and work during the coronavirus pandemic.

The charity has launched a new webpage – Coronavirus – if you need to be off work to care for someone. Its frontline advisers have also directly helped many parents who are struggling with childcare due to the closure of schools and nurseries while family and friends are unable to help.

Nicky Willshere, Chief Officer at Citizens Advice Ipswich, said:

“The thought of returning to work after being furloughed, while juggling childcare, can be a daunting prospect. This is particularly the case for parents who would usually rely on family and friends for support, but can’t at the moment due to social distancing guidance.

“Parents and guardians who are struggling have a number of options. Anyone who is unsure of what to do can visit the Citizens Advice website for more information, and can speak to an adviser online or on the phone for more help.”

There are a number of potential options when it comes to childcare:

Ask to be furloughed. The government has said that if you’re unable to work due to childcare responsibilities, your employer can furlough you using the Job Retention Scheme. If you’re furloughed, you’ll be paid 80% of your normal pay up to a maximum of £2,500 a month.

Ask your employer about flexible working. If your employer says you have to work, it may be possible for you to work more flexibly, at times that suit you, on different tasks or for fewer hours. Some employers may suggest you take annual leave.

Ask for unpaid leave until you can work again. If you’re unable to be furloughed or work flexibly, you could ask for unpaid leave with no fixed end date. This is called ‘indefinite unpaid leave’ and you should ask for it in writing so that you have a record.

If your employer says no to the options above, the law says they must consider letting you have some unpaid leave, but only for a limited period of time.

This could be parental leave. If you’ve worked for your employer for at least a year, you can have unpaid parental leave for each of your children. The law says you can take four weeks’ leave per child each year, but you can only take 18 weeks in total for the whole period until they reach 18. You also have to tell your employer 21 days before you want to be off work. It’s a good idea to check with your employer as they might be more generous than this. For example, you might be allowed more than four weeks’ leave in a year, or you might be able to give less than 21 days’ notice.

Alternatively, you can ask for time off for a dependent. You can have some unpaid time off to deal with unexpected problems or emergencies with your child. The time off has to be ‘reasonable’ and you can only have enough time to deal with the urgent problem.

For example, if you’re asked to return to work from furlough, you could ask for dependent leave to sort out childcare. You need to tell your employer as soon as possible that you’ll need to be off. You also need to say why you need the time off and when you expect to be back.

If you’re paid less than normal as a result of a flexible working arrangement or the furlough scheme you should check if you can get benefits to help.