Furlough working parents affected by school closures, TUC urges

Union says many employees with children will have ‘no choice’ but to take unpaid leave as Covid cases cast uncertainty over the start of term

Employers have been urged to furlough parents affected by new year school closures, warning many could be left with “no choice” but to take unpaid leave to homeschool their children.

Following a surge in Covid cases over the Christmas period, the government announced that all secondary schools would close to pupils apart from vulnerable students and the children of key workers this week, once again forcing many working parents to balance working from home with childcare responsibilities.

Primary schools in many areas in the south of England have also shut their doors until 18 January in a bid to combat the rise in cases of a new variant of Covid-19, which is reportedly more infectious among young people.

Teaching unions have called for a wider pause of the reopening of schools for anyone other than vulnerable children and those of key workers, and a return to remote learning while Covid-secure working arrangements are being reviewed.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said many families would be frantically trying to find a way to balance their work and childcare commitments because of school closures: “Without further action, many will have no choice but to cut their hours or take unpaid leave from work. This will lead to further hardship and will hit mums and single parents hardest.” 

She added that, if all schools were closed as the teaching unions are calling for, some working parents may be forced to leave their jobs altogether if enhanced support isn’t offered.

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While the job retention scheme does allow bosses to furlough parents who can’t work because of a lack of childcare, O’Grady warned that “not all bosses are aware that caring responsibilities are an acceptable reason to furlough”.

Responding to the TUC’s comments, Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said the job retention scheme scheme was a “strong solution” for helping working parents balance childcare and homeschooling needs – especially as under the current scheme workers can be furloughed on a part-time basis.

But Palmer said employers still needed to gain the agreement of staff before implementing a period of furlough as some employees may not accept the 80 per cent wage the scheme provides. 

However, Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, warned that while it is right for employers to consider furlough as an option, it might not be feasible in every circumstance. “In these cases, it's really important that employers are as flexible as possible and help parents during this demanding time by ensuring line managers are discussing other adjustments that can help, such as temporary changes to working hours,” he said.

“Having been through all of this before, employers should know what parents find most beneficial and should be ready to implement these changes again."