Employees can be furloughed to carry out caring responsibilities, government confirms

Expansion to job retention scheme also allows staff to take on other work while laid off, and could plug labour shortages in some sectors

Workers who have caring responsibilities can be furloughed by their employer to enable them to care for dependants, the government has said in an update to the guidance on its job retention scheme (JRS).

The guidance, updated over the weekend, now states that workers who are unable to do their jobs because of caring responsibilities resulting from coronavirus can be furloughed. In practice, this means parents whose children cannot attend school could be put on furlough rather than taking annual leave or unpaid leave to look after them.

Clare McNeil, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), said this marked a positive development in government policy. “While some [parents and carers] will be able to work from home and it's not ideal but they can just about manage to combine work and care, obviously for some groups of parents that's just not possible,” she said.

In particular, the IPPR identified single parents, parents of very young children, and parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities as more severely impacted by the closure of schools.

“We know that there have been several reports of women in particular who have either been dismissed or have been forced to take unpaid leave because of the fact that the schools have closed, which is clearly unfair,” McNeil said. “So it's great that the government appears to have listened and has changed the guidance”.

However, McNeil noted that the JRS could go further in supporting workers, and called for extra cover for those who saw their hours – and therefore their pay – reduced as a result of the effects of the pandemic.

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She also called on the government to further clarify whether employees could claim a right to be furloughed if, for example, they have caring responsibilities but have not been given an option of furlough by their employer.

But Carl Atkinson, partner at gunnercooke, described the updated guidance as “bizarre”. He said before this change in the guidance, he had advised employers that, while unfortunate that staff found themselves in that position, being unable to work because of caring responsibilities is a personal reason so they should be put on unpaid leave. “Now the government guidance is suggesting that actually [the JRS] could cover circumstances that are much wider than we'd originally thought,” he said.

Atkinson added that he believed it was now potentially an option to furlough employees who were concerned about attending work during the pandemic, a development he raised concerns about.

“This idea that employees could refuse to come into work because they're scared and put pressure on their employer to furlough them is really the last thing businesses are going to need if they are already facing staff shortages,” he said, noting that clients in sectors such as care were already struggling to get sufficient employees into work.

The updated guidance also said that, if contractually allowed, furloughed staff could carry out paid work for another employer while still receiving furlough payments – a move Atkinson said seemed “completely counterintuitive from an employment law perspective”.

However, he noted it could allow workers in sectors particularly hard hit by the pandemic to plug labour shortages in other sectors – an issue highlighted in recent weeks by food production businesses.

“It could [now] be possible for furloughed hospitality sector workers to get a second job in food production, or anywhere else, and go and do that job, work there and get paid,” Atkinson said, adding that this would also require many employers to change or temporarily adjust their employment contracts, many of which include provisions preventing staff working for any other employers.