School’s out for Covid-19

24 March, 2020

With the announcement that schools across the UK will be closed for the foreseeable future for all but keyworkers, countless parents will now need to stay at home to look after their children. This, coupled with an increase in employees also having to care for elderly or vulnerable individuals, has left employers wondering what their obligations are if employees are no longer able to fulfil their job role.

There is no legal obligation on employers to grant additional paid time off in circumstances such as these. It is entirely at the discretion of the employer as to what they wish to do. However it must ensure that any actions taken are done fairly and in a non-discriminatory way.

Being flexible

As a measure to try and curb the spread of COVID-19, the Government is already asking any employees who are able to work from home to do so, avoiding any unnecessary social contact. This means that many employees are already working remotely. Employers should be actively encouraging this. For many, this will allow them to care for their children or other vulnerable individuals whilst still being able to undertake as much of their normal role as possible. It may be that employees will be able to work reduced hours or work similar hours at different times of day, for example in the evening, or early morning rather than 9-5. It may be that duties need to be spread out slightly differently between team members. Flexibility will be essential if businesses are to have any hope of continuing to operate smoothly.

Unpaid leave

Employees are entitled to time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant. This could be a child, parent, spouse, partner or someone else who is dependent on an individual for their care. Employers may pay individuals for this time off, but they are not obliged to do so. There is no limit on how much time off an employee can have; simply a ‘reasonable’ amount of time is permitted to deal with an emergency. This is normally enough time to arrange other longer term childcare arrangements. If a more substantial period of time is required by an employee, then often a period of parental leave could be taken.

Employees are allowed to take leave of up to four weeks’ per year per child as unpaid parental leave. This could mean that if someone has three children under the age of 18 then they would be entitled to twelve weeks’ unpaid leave a year. To be eligible, employees will need to have been employed by the company for at least a year, be named on the child’s birth or adoption certificate, or have parental responsibility. Unfortunately this option is not available for any workers or those who are self-employed nor for those who are foster parents. Employers are able to extend this right to those groups if they wish.

Annual leave

Employers are allowed to request that their employees take annual leave on specific dates. If you are going to give employees notice that they must take statutory holiday on specified dates then you need to ensure that such notice is at least twice the length of the period of leave that the worker is being ordered to take i.e. if you want them to take two weeks’ holiday then you will need to give them at least four weeks’ notice. In the current circumstances and based on these notice requirements, it may be easier for employers to ask all employees to take one day’s holiday each week for the next 8-10 weeks rather than a single block of leave.

Self-isolation

If any employees are unable to work because they either have COVID-19 or they are self-isolating in line with current government guidelines then they will be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). SSP currently stands at £94.25 a week but is due to go up to £95.85 on 6 April 2020.  If someone moves in with someone who is at higher risk of severe illness if they catch Coronavirus to support them during self-isolation then they would not, under current guidance, be entitled to receive SSP.

Above all, employers need to recognise that in such uncertain times, employees will need to be given some flexibility especially given that we do not know how long the effects of this current outbreak will last.

Contact Camilla Beamish or another member of the Employment Team if you have any questions or need advice.