Seven in 10 requests for furlough by working mums rejected, TUC study reveals

Employers urged to ‘do the right thing’ and explore all options with those struggling to balance jobs and childcare

More than seven in 10 requests from working mums to be put on furlough to help them manage work and home schooling are being rejected, research from a trade union has found, fuelling mounting calls for employers to “do the right thing” and “offer maximum flexibility” to parents while schools are closed.

The TUC polled more than 50,000 working mums between 7 and 10 January – shortly after it was announced that schools in England and Scotland would be closed to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers.

It found around 3,100, or one in 16, requested to be put on furlough. Of those requests, around 2,200 (71 per cent) were turned down.

Under the job retention scheme, bosses are allowed to furlough parents who can’t work because of a lack of childcare, but the TUC says these results show this option isn’t being harnessed nearly enough.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said that, for many working mothers, working as normal was “neither possible nor sustainable”, and that unpaid leave was not the solution.

“Tens of thousands of mums have told us they are despairing,” said O’Grady. “Bosses must do the right thing and offer maximum flexibility to mums and dads who can’t work because of childcare.”

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The union is also calling on the government to introduce a temporary right to furlough for groups who cannot work because of coronavirus restrictions – both parents and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable and required to shield.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, advised businesses to look at all options available to support their employees. HR should encourage line managers to have regular catch-ups with their teams to discuss what solutions they might be able to put in place to ease some of the pressure, he said. This could include a range of flexible working arrangements, altered role responsibilities or for part timers to split their hours over more days.

“Only where these sorts of solutions don’t work should employers discuss with employees whether taking unpaid leave, for example parental leave, or annual holiday might be necessary,” said Willmott.

Renee Watson, founder of The Curiosity Box, told People Management she was “disgusted but not surprised” by the study’s findings. Of her firm’s 14 employees, 12 are working mothers and all have been given the option of being furloughed – although so far none have chosen to take it.

“The vast majority of working environments are still based on the assumption that, given any opportunity, people will take advantage, and that women are not quite as committed as their male counterparts,” Watson said.

“The future of work is being shaped now and employers must be brave and make workplaces more equitable and inclusive.”

Joeli Brearley, founder and CEO of Pregnant Then Screwed, described the findings as a “cry for help on a massive scale”. “Our advice lines are awash with mothers who have no idea how to care for their children and maintain their paid employment when their employer is refusing to furlough them,” Brearley warned.

“This is an emergency and if the government doesn’t step in soon there will be a generational roll back in maternal employment that will take us decades to repair.”