Coronavirus: more support needed for working parents as schools close, say business bodies

Experts say employers need to accept there will be disruption as employees ‘struggle to be as productive as normal’

Schools in England, Scotland and Wales are to shut from Friday (20 March) until further notice as a direct response to the coronavirus outbreak, the government has announced. 

Prime minister Boris Johnson has said schools and nurseries will close to all pupils except the children of key workers, which includes NHS staff and delivery drivers, and vulnerable children. At the time of publication, the government had provided no further detail on the full list of sectors and workers included in this exemption. 

The announcement has led to calls for more support for working parents, who will inevitably be stretched as they juggle childcare and working responsibilities. 

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said the government’s decision to close schools will have a massive impact on working parents, and employers needed to accept there will be disruption as working parents “struggle to be as productive as normal”. 

“Employers need to make allowances for this and take a flexible approach, especially for people with younger children who will inevitably need more care,” Cheese said. “With many schools looking at remote teaching, parents will have to juggle their work with helping their children to access school activities.”

Cheese added parents may have limited space and equipment to manage both working from home and their children being in the house each day.

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To ensure workers do not suffer financial hardship during the Covid-19 crisis, the CIPD has called for statutory sick pay (SSP) to be increased to be closer in line with the National Living Wage and to widen eligibility to include those who are self-employed or earn below the SSP earnings threshold. 

Additionally, the CIPD called for the creation of a wage subsidy fund, payable to employers, to ensure workers continued to be paid and to minimise the risk of redundancies as a result of coronavirus. 

Working parents have the right to take unpaid leave to look after children in an emergency or unforeseen situation, either as emergency time off or unpaid parental leave, but this is intended to cover an employee for a couple of days. Experts have warned that employers may have to look at options such as unpaid leave or reduced hours where they can’t afford to pay working parents unable to work their full hours as a result of childcare responsibilities.

According to a recent CIPD and YouGov survey of 282 working parents, less than half (45 per cent) said they would be able to work from home if schools were closed. A fifth (21 per cent) said they would have to take paid annual leave in order to cope, and 15 per cent said they would need to take emergency unpaid leave.

This picture contrasted with the results of two surveys People Management and the CIPD have jointly run on the impact of coronavirus on workplaces, which both found seven in 10 employers (70 per cent and 71 per cent respectively) would encourage staff to work from home where possible in the event of school closures, suggesting a disconnect between how many employers expect working parents to be able to work remotely and how many actually would be able to do so.

Both surveys also found employees would either have to take unpaid emergency leave (both 14 per cent) or use their annual leave (7 per cent and 8 per cent) if they were forced to cover caring responsibilities while schools were closed. A further 9 per cent and 7 per cent respectively indicated staff wouldn’t necessarily be able to work from home but would be paid nonetheless due to the exceptional circumstances.

Speaking to People Management for an article on the first set of survey results, Jude Read, managing director of Jude Read Consultancy, said many of her clients had not fully considered the impact of coronavirus and school closures on their business, warning that remote working would not be an option for many sectors.

“My clients are in manufacturing and logistics, and the heart of the business is on the shop floor, which can’t be done remotely,” Read explained. “I’ve told my clients we need to plan because, if the worst case happens, we still need people to come into work.”

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, said parents would find themselves needing to juggle work with looking after their children and supporting their learning at home now schools were closing. “Now is the time for line managers to have sensible and understanding conversations with parents and carers of young children – particularly those working full time – about what is needed, and what is and isn’t possible, over the coming weeks,” she said. 

Since the virus emerged, van Zyl said her organisation had seen an increasing number of employers adopting flexible working to mitigate the risks of spreading the illness and help workers. The outbreak underlined the ongoing importance of “good quality, part-time and flexible jobs” being available to parents, and the drawbacks of the traditional nine-to-five working model, she said.  

“We hope that this will help employers recognise the far-reaching benefits of flexible working – including increased productivity and engagement from staff – and that they will continue to embed flexible working into their business long after the coronavirus has run its course,” van Zyl said.