Low-paid workers more likely to take unpaid leave because of school closures, survey finds

Poll shows part-time working mothers are worst affected, as campaigners call for a review of how the government’s Covid response has impacted women

Parents from low-income families are nine times more likely to have to take unpaid leave because of school closures than those in higher-paid jobs, a study has found.

The poll of 1,308 working parents with children under the age of 14, conducted by the Fawcett Society, found that 12 per cent of those earning below £20,000, and 13 per cent of those earning between £20,000 and £40,000, said they would have to take time off without pay if schools closed or their child had to self-isolate. This dropped to just 7 per cent of among those earning more than £40,000.

The survey, conducted in partnership with the Women’s Budget Group and the Women’s Equality Network, was conducted in November and December last year, before the latest round of school closures.

Mothers were almost twice as likely as fathers to say they would have to take time off without pay in the event schools closed (15 and 8 per cent respectively), while mothers who worked part time were more likely to need to take time off without pay than mothers working full time (20 and 12 per cent respectively).

Felicia Willow, interim chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said the figures showed women remained “on the side lines” of the government’s response to coronavirus. “We know there is more to be done to reduce the disproportionate impact of Covid on women, and we urge the government to put women at the centre of its decision making,” she said.

“A rescue package for our childcare sector, clear guidance on how parents can manage furlough effectively and equally, and an equality impact assessment on how decisions such as school closures continue to have a more negative impact on mothers than fathers, remain absolutely essential and more urgent than ever.”

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The Fawcett Society is among several organisations to have signed a letter to the UK’s equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), calling on it to investigate claims the government’s response to the outbreak has had a disproportionately negative effect on women.

In the letter, the signatories – which also include the TUC, Amnesty International and Save the Children – said: “This is a time of crisis for women. The coronavirus pandemic is having a significant and disproportionate impact on women’s health, jobs and livelihoods,” the Guardian reported.

“The policy decisions taken by government and other key public bodies in response to coronavirus are worsening the impact of the pandemic and deepening inequalities faced by women. The consequences of these decisions will affect women for years to come,” the letter continued.

The letter comes just a week after a damning report from the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) – a parliamentary committee – that criticised the government for a gendered response to the crisis, claiming it “repeatedly failed to consider” women.

In response to the report, the government, Baroness Berridge, minister for women, said the government had provided an “unprecedented offer of support” including for sectors in which women were more likely to be employed.

“We also recognise that it is vital that children can return to school to lift some of the weight off parents across the country, which is why we will prioritise opening schools when it is safe to do so,” Berridge added.

Responding to the WEC report last week, the EHRC said the committee’s report “echoed our own assessments” about the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on women.

Baroness Kishwer Falkner, chair of the EHRC, said: “The pandemic has caused economic hardship for many businesses and the people that work for them, particularly in industries where women make up a large percentage of the workforce, such as hospitality. We also know that women are overrepresented in low-paid and insecure employment and still take on the majority of caring responsibilities.”

Kishwer added that employers needed to “pay close attention” to laws on pregnancy and maternity discrimination – an area that the WEC raised “grave concerns” about.

“Everyone has the right to a working environment that allows them to reach their full potential, and pregnant women and new mothers must be adequately protected so that they can continue to contribute their skills and experience to Britain’s recovery,” said Kishwer.