Back to School - but what does it mean for employers?

Vicky Webber
Human Resources, COVID-19

Back to school may feel like back to normal for some but for many it will bring new concerns, a new way of working and a new way of having to balance childcare and work through the coronavirus pandemic that we are still very much in the middle of.

There are a number of things employers will need to keep in mind as a large proportion of their workforce send children back to school and to return to work.

As with any other employees who were furloughed for a considerable amount of time, a return to work can mean employees have concerns about returning to the workplace. This could be for a number of reasons such as whether they are returning to a Covid-19 Secure workplace or general anxieties about being away from work for so long and how effective they will be when they return. Whether employees have been furloughed or have been working at home and will now return to the physical place of work, they should be re-inducted and provided with information about new procedures and provided with training for any new systems that have been implemented in their absence. Employers should be mindful that those returning will need time to adjust and that regular communication and support will help with this.

It may not be long before an employee receives a call telling them they need to collect their child from school due to coronavirus and they have the statutory right to take the time off to either collect their child or make other arrangements. Time off for dependents means providing or arranging the care in the event of normal planned childcare falling through i.e. the example of needing to pick a child up promptly from school especially as the option of grandparents/friends collecting in the event of suspected Covid-19 symptoms will not be permitted. Usually the time would be a day or two at the most and the entitlement is unpaid, employers must remember that an employee should not suffer a detriment for exerting a statutory right and therefore should not look to impose sanctions or treat an employee unfavourably because they have taken the time off. Any ongoing time off to continue to care for children would also be unpaid however it could be taken as holiday too.

The rules around self isolation remain similar to what they have always been so if someone in the household develops symptoms those who live with them must self isolate for 14 days. Where a parent collects their child because of suspected symptoms then the likelihood is that they will have to self isolate too. In this instance their time would be taken as sick leave and SSP may be payable from day one, unless the parent can work from home in which case, if they are well enough and childcare requirements permit it, they can continue to work from home as opposed to take sickness absence. SSP would not be payable for any days where work was undertaken. Small employers can claim SSP back from the government where it is Covid-19 related.

Keep in mind that local lockdowns could be imposed and depending on how strict the lockdown is, it may mean that children cannot attend school, or childcare arrangements before and after school may be restricted. In these instances working parents will need flexibility to manage the situation. There may be scope to use the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme again (if both parties are eligible) and place them on furlough/flexi furlough but this will only last until the end of October, employers should take the opportunity to identify those employees who may find it difficult in such a situation and give consideration to what extra support can be given to them.

Flexibility is key, where work can be undertaken from home then employers should do all they can to accommodate this. It may mean a temporary adjustment to working hours so the normal ‘9-5’ does not apply and time could be made up in an evening or weekend. Measuring productivity based on tangible outputs rather than being present will give confidence to employers and employees that a remote, flexible arrangement can work for both.

Employers may experience an increase in flexible working requests, it’s important to remember that for those with 26 weeks’ continuous service, making a request for flexible working is a statutory right and has a formal procedure which should be followed to agree or reject the request. Requests can only be rejected for eight stipulated reasons and must be objectively justified by the business to ensure any rejection of a request does not fall foul of the legislation. Trial periods can be really beneficial if an employer is not sure about the proposed arrangement, they allow for the working pattern to be tested and can also be extended if more time is needed to find the right arrangement.

A reluctance or inability to provide flexibility to working parents will not only cause productivity issues for companies but could also find them on the wrong side of the Equality Act 2010 too. The majority of those with caring responsibilities are women and not providing flexibility to assist with childcare could result in indirect sex discrimination resulting in tribunal claims and reputational damage.

There is no doubt that coronavirus has shifted the way the country is working and each employer has a responsibility to do all they can to help employees manage their childcare responsibilities alongside work. Doing this successfully means valuable employees can continue to work and be engaged with the organisation resulting in a win-win situation for both employers and employees.

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