Legal

Managing employee childcare issues during coronavirus

14 Apr 2020 By Steve Davies

Steve Davies explains how employers can help their workers balance work with parenting commitments 

The Covid-19 crisis has impacted on employers and employees across all sectors and industries, but it’s essential that businesses continue to adapt to the situation to protect their staff and their companies. 

The government has introduced a number of measures to limit the spread of the virus, which includes closing schools and asking those who aren’t classed as ‘key workers’ to work from home. This has meant a huge number of workers are left balancing their work duties with childcare responsibilities. 

The key role for employers is to be as flexible as they can be in the current environment. These are unprecedented times which require all of us to work together, be creative and find solutions that work for everyone. Our experience is that it is possible, even in these testing times, to find the right balance between the need for parents to look after their children, while also taking care of their work responsibilities.

Key workers

Parents classed as key workers include those who work in health and social care, education and childcare, key public services, local and national government, food and other necessary goods, public safety and national security, transport and utilities, communication and financial services. 

Many parents working in these sectors may be able to ensure their child is kept at home. If this is possible, and a key worker’s child can be safely cared for at home, then the government is urging them to stay in lockdown. However, this raises some potentially challenging questions.

What measures can employers take? 

It is not always necessary for your employee to work between the hours of 9am and 5pm. Many children at home are now required to participate in online classes as an alternative to attending school. Many of these classes will commence at 9am, and so your employee will need to be on hand to assist their child with setting this up. They will also be required to supervise them, cook for them and deal with a multitude of childcare tasks that will obviously encroach on any normal working day. This means it will be difficult for your employee to deal with their work responsibilities within the traditional hours of a working day. 

There are various ways for employers to ensure work is being completed, and that it’s being completed to a high standard. It is recommended to focus on output rather than how or when the work is being done, so a flexible approach to a working day is required. Consider the following: 

  • Allow your employee to work outside the traditional hours of 9am to 5pm by starting earlier, working later, or perhaps even working at weekends. Although remember that your employee will also need to make time to rest and recuperate.
  • Stay in regular contact with your employee. For example, regularly pick up the phone, send an email or perhaps invite them to join a WhatsApp type messaging group.
  • Be there for your employee to answer any queries or concerns they have.  
  • Have regular catch-up meetings with your employee. For example, have regular team meetings by way of videoconference software such as Skype or Zoom. In this way you can invite a number of staff like any regular team meeting. It provides a perfect opportunity to ask your employees questions, find out what they are doing and listen to any concerns they may have. 
  • Discuss with the employee what output is expected of them and how this will be monitored, but explain that as long as business needs are met you are happy for the employee to work around any needs they have.  
  • Ask them to provide you with updates (by email or phone) setting out what tasks they have completed and what problems they may have so you can discuss this. 
  • While you will want to keep an eye on whether targets are being met, it is important to understand there will likely be a downturn of work in most sectors of the economy and that it will take many employees time to adjust to new and temporary working arrangements.

All employees who have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks have the legal right to request flexible working. If you receive a formal flexible work request as an employer, you must deal with them in a ‘reasonable manner’. This includes, for example:

  • assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the application;
  • holding a meeting to discuss the request with the employee; and
  • offering an appeal process.

If an employer deals with these requests in a reasonable manner, they do still have the right to refuse an employee’s application for flexible working, as long as there is a good business reason for doing so.

Steve Davies is an employment associate solicitor at Aaron & Partners

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