Navigating parental leave rights

30 Aug 2017 By Beverley Sunderland

Legal expert Beverley Sunderland discusses the options open to parents, including the under-publicised right to unpaid parental leave

Parents have a great deal to get used to on the arrival of a new child. A big consideration is juggling work with childcare, whether they are a single mum or both parents are working. There may be long periods of illness which cannot count as an ‘emergency’ for automatic time off and, as children get older, there are also the long school holidays to contend with.

To recognise that responsibility for a new baby should not just fall on the shoulders of the mother, the law was changed in 2015 to introduce ‘shared parental leave’, which allows parents to share 50 of the 52 weeks maternity leave with one another.

The problem was that by including the word ‘parental’ in the title of this new right, this has led to a great deal of confusion for parents about exactly what they are entitled to, and a long-existing right to ‘parental leave’ has dropped off the radar for many employers and employees.

Although the changes received little publicity, parental leave was actually enhanced with effect from 6 April 2015. Until then, this leave had to be taken before the child’s fifth birthday (or 18 if they were disabled) and different rules applied to adopted children. But from 6 April 2015 this right was extended to all children up to 18, with no distinction between adoption and natural birth.

The intention of parental leave is to allow eligible parents time off to look after their child’s welfare – for example, by spending more time with their children and the family; looking for new schools; or settling children into new childcare arrangements. Their employment rights (such as returning to their job) remain protected.

Unpaid parental leave

Unpaid parental leave is available to any employee who has been with the same employer for a year or more so that parents can take more time off to care for their child, in addition to their annual holiday entitlement. It can be taken for up to four weeks a year, in blocks of one week, to a maximum of 18 weeks for each child before they turn 18.

There are two obvious drawbacks: it is unpaid and so is not immediately attractive, and also it can only be taken in blocks of one week. However, some employers do pay employees who take parental leave and also allow parental leave to be taken in days rather than weeks.

Our recent research into how knowledgeable employees were about this right surveyed 1,500 working parents – with an equal split of men and women with children under 18 years old and who have been with their employer for a year or more, across a mix of industry sectors including the finance, IT and industrial sectors.

This confirmed how few parents are aware of this unpaid parental leave right, with 41 per cent of parents unaware of their right to take unpaid parental leave to care for their children. Three-quarters of those surveyed had never taken unpaid parental leave, although more than a quarter of them intended to spend up to £800 on holiday clubs alone this summer.

It seems that fathers were the least informed with half of fathers (49 per cent) neither knowing about this employment right, nor how much time they are allowed off (52 per cent), compared to 32 per cent and 38 per cent of mums respectively.

Poor uptake

However, poor uptake in unpaid parental leave may not just be down to the fact that it is unpaid or to a lack of awareness, as nearly half of men (47 per cent) and 31 per cent of women worry how taking unpaid leave may impact their career and that it will be perceived negatively by their employer and colleagues.   

While for high earners it may be cheaper to pay for their children to attend a summer club, the fact is, there is a choice and few parents appear to be aware of this. Although there are no obligations on an employer to bring this right to the attention of their employees, employers should be encouraged to ensure their employees are aware of this option should the need arise.

Beverley Sunderland is managing director of Crossland Employment Solicitors

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