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Homeworking and Home-schooling – Employers’ obligations
As we start off 2021 with yet another period of national lockdown, many people are now trying to work from home whilst simultaneously trying to home-school their children. Whilst we may be in a better position than was the case in March 2020, with the technology up and running and most employees used to working from home for longer periods, there are no doubt increased challenges for both employees and employers in dealing with this current lockdown period.
In March 2020, no-one expected children to be out of school for an extended period of time. There was perhaps, therefore, a less concerned approach from parents who consoled themselves with the belief that it was only going to be short term, and that their children would undoubtedly ‘catch up’ on anything that was missed.
Nearly a year on and, if some press reports and speculation is to be believed, Boris Johnson has felt unable to give any guarantees that this current lockdown and school closure will end before the end of this school year. Whilst of course we all hope that will not be the case, and there is talk of a return from the end of this half-term, it invariably causes additional concerns for parents as children could end up missing an entire year of classroom-based education. And whilst schools have undoubtedly become better and more experienced at online learning, that in itself places additional pressure on parents who are concerned to ensure that their children don’t end up falling behind those of their key-worker peers or those whose parents are able to devote more time to their children’s home-schooling.
So where does that leave employers when business and work must continue to be done? How can they assist their employees to manage their competing interests of work and family life when working from home? And what can employers do where that balance becomes impossible – or just too stressful – to manage?
Give and take
The first thing to note is that there will invariably need to be some give and take on both sides. Employees who need to tend to their children’s needs during working hours may find that they need to work additional hours after the normal working day has ended in order to complete their tasks. Employers are encouraged to offer flexibility where they can to assist employees to manage their workloads in a way which allows them to manage the various demands on their time. Employers should speak to their staff to understand their concerns and current arrangements, and to ensure that staff know to whom they may speak – in confidence – if they need help.
However, that is not to say that employees should be able to simply work fewer hours or carry out less work, with a corresponding increase on the demands on their colleagues’ time. If employees are simply unable to manage work and home schooling, other alternatives may need to be considered. The same considerations below will also apply where employees are no longer able to attend work due to child care commitments, and they cannot work from home.
Flexibility, Options and Alternatives
If employees need to work fewer hours, employers should of course consider such requests and if they are able to do so, it may be sensible to accommodate them. Where appropriate, employers can of course make use of the furlough scheme – including flexible furlough where appropriate – and the Government has now amended the guidance to make clear that this is an option in these circumstances. However, it is not compulsory for employers to furlough staff in these situations, and where there is work which needs to be completed, this may not be a satisfactory solution and any reduction in hours may equally mean needing to agree a corresponding reduction in pay for the relevant employee.
Alternatively, employees may be able to take parental leave – subject to compliance with the relevant requirements of the scheme – but this would be unpaid unless the contract of employment states otherwise. For employees whose normal arrangements for care have fallen through – such as for almost everyone with school age children – employees will also have the right to take time off to care for dependants ‘to deal with the unexpected disruption, termination or breakdown’ of those arrangements. However, it should be noted that is limited to such time as may be reasonably necessary for the employee to put alternative care arrangements in place. It is not a long-term solution to enable the employee to take care of the dependant themselves. Given that, at present, there may well not be an alternative care arrangement which can be made, parental leave is likely to be the more appropriate solution.
Employees may also be able to take annual leave. This will need to be booked in accordance with normal booking procedures, but this may be a solution where employees do not want to take unpaid time off work whilst they have available annual leave to take, if the employer is able to accommodate this.
Finally, employers may wish to consider whether an extended leave of absence may be more appropriate for certain employees. Again, unless otherwise agreed, this would be unpaid.
Whichever option is agreed, this will need to be in discussions with the employee and it would be sensible for employers to document what is agreed in writing so as to minimise the risk of future claims. It would be sensible to keep things under review on a regular basis for all staff to ensure that they know to whom they can speak if they are struggling so that measures can be put in place and support can be offered in a timely manner.
For advice on any of the points referred to in this article, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Employment team. Call 0113 2384 041