When my youngest started school last year, one challenge we faced was the myriad of new bugs that he was exposed to and the inevitable days off work while he was home sick. I think in that first few months he had chickenpox, a viral infection, a chesty cough and several unidentified rashes. And it was the same a few years before when he started in nursery.
Our first instinct is to be home with our child. But unless you’re self-employed there is also the fear of going to your boss, yet again, asking for time off because your kid is sick. In my years as an HR Manager this was probably one of the most common causes of anxiousness for working mums: balancing work responsibilities with the needs of our family.
I was lucky that I had an understanding boss who knew that sometimes I had to drop everything when I got that call. And Iike the vast majority of part-time workers I would move heaven and earth to make sure that my work back in the office wouldn’t fall behind.
But what can you do if your employer is less than understanding? There are some family-friendly rights here in the UK which you may not be aware of:
Ordinary Parental Leave
Not to be confused with Shared Parental Leave, Ordinary Parental Leave (OPL) is leave taken to care for a child or to make arrangements for the good of a child. It can even be taken to enable you to spend more time with your child and family so it’s a good option for phased settling in to childcare or school if your child is only attending a couple of hours a day for a fixed period. There are some examples of how it can be used on the UK Government website at https://www.gov.uk/parental- leave/overview.
You are entitled to parental leave if:
- You have been employed as an employee (rather than agency or contractor) by the company continuously for at least one year
- You are the birth or adoptive parent of a child who is under 18 years of ago.
You can take up to a maximum of 18 weeks parental leave in respect of any individual child but it must all be taken before the child’s 18th birthday. On the (significant) downside, this is unpaid. However if it’s something that is feasible for you financially, it’s important to know that your employment rights are protected. This means your right to pay, to holidays and returning to a job.
You must give notice to your employer in writing at least 21 days in advance of the start of leave. Your employer can postpone a period of parental leave if it would cause a “significant disruption to the business”. However they can only postpone it for a maximum of six months and have to give you their reasons for doing so in writing within seven days of your request for leave. They can’t decline parental leave and they can’t dismiss you for asking for, or taking, it.
Great for: Planned periods when you know you’ll need to be available for your child.
Disadvantages: It’s unpaid, which is obviously a biggie.
Time Off For Dependants
This is the entitlement to time off to deal with an emergency involving your child, partner, grandchild, parent or anyone who can be classed as depending on you for care. Whether this also includes your pets will entirely depend on the views of your employer!
There is no set amount of time for this, it’s classed as a “reasonable time” to allow you to deal with the emergency. However it’s important to note that it isn’t applicable if you knew about the situation in advance. So for example if you know your child is starting school and will only be in for half-days, you can’t ask for the afternoon as Time Off For Dependants. However you are covered if you get that dreaded call asking you to collect your child because they’ve thrown up all over the carpet. Of if your teenager rings you in a panic to say they’ve lost their bus pass and don’t know how they’ll get home, that’s covered too.
You don’t have to submit anything in writing in advance (because how could you) or give proof. However whether the time off is given as paid or unpaid is entirely up to the employer. Some companies will have clauses in their employment contract or staff handbook which specify either way so it’s always good practice to know what yours says.
Great for: Dealing with an unexpected emergency like your child being ill or childcare falling through.
Disadvantages: Unpaid and only allows you enough time to deal with the unplanned aspect. If your child catches chickenpox and is off school for two weeks, Time Off For Dependants allows you reasonable time to deal with the initial stage (bringing home from school, doc appointments etc) and then to make alternative childcare arrangements. Many employers may allow you the rest of the time off but would expect you to use your annual holiday entitlement.
Right to Request Flexible Working
This is a longer-term solution and one which I’ll cover in more depth on another post. Awareness of this has certainly improved over the last few years but the biggest misunderstanding I found was that people don’t realise it applies to everyone, you do not need to have a child to request it.
Everyone has the right to submit a request for flexible working providing the following:
- You have worked continuously for your employer for the previous 26 weeks
- You have not made a request in the previous 12 month
- You are not an agency worker
There are so many different ways of working flexibly beyond just part-time: compressed hours; term-time working; job shares; flexitime; working from home. In my view it is massively under-utilised as a tool for work/life balance and if more requests were made (especially by those without children and those who aren’t women), flexible working as a concept would become the norm.
Great for: Longer-term work/life balance
Disadvantages: There is a formal process to request flexible working which can take up to 3 months to complete. An employer can refuse a request for “business reasons” however there is a specified lists of legitimate reasons which qualify. More on this in a later blog post.
Unexpected events crop up and we all have times when we need some support and understanding from our employers. I would always recommend the first thing you do is to be open and honest with your line manager. If they aren’t aware of the issue they can’t possibly help. If you make a request under OPL or Time Off for Dependents which you feel is declined unfairly, do seek advise firstly from your Human Resources department and than from either Citizen’s Advice or ACAS. Some employers may just need a little education on the law, others who consciously flout the rules need to be called to account.
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