Can your employer force you to take unpaid leave if you're struggling with childcare?

PARENTS who are worried about juggling childcare and work might be wondering what happens when they return to their job.

It comes as more businesses are expected to start reopening their doors following the coronavirus lockdown.

Workers may also be coming to the end of their agreed length of time to be furloughed.

But what are your rights if you've got children to care for, and no one else to look after them – can your boss make you take time off unpaid?

If you’re concerned about childcare, Citizens Advice has launched a new webpage which rounds up what happens if you need to be off work to care for someone.

Nurseries and schools are currently closed for the majority of children, with the exception of looking after the kids of key workers.

What other help is available for parents?

CHILDCARE can be a costly business – here is how you can get help.

  • 30 hours free childcare  – Parents of three and four-year-olds can apply for 30 hours free childcare a week.
    To qualify you must work at least 16 hours a week at the national living or minimum wage and earn less than £100,000 a year.
  • Tax credits – For children under 20, some families can get help with childcare costs.
  • Childcare vouchers – If your employer offers childcare vouchers you can get up to £55 a week in tax and national insurance savings.
    You pay for your childcare before your tax contributions are taken out.
    This scheme is open to new joiners until October 4, 2018, when it is planned that tax-free childcare will replace the vouchers.
  • Food vouchers – If your child usually gets free dinners at school, you should be entitled to free supermarket vouchers to help cover costs. You can get £15 a week per child to spend at a range of supermarkets, including Aldi, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer.
  • Tax-free childcare – Available to working families and the self-employed, for every £8 you put in the government will add an extra £2.

There is no official word on when they’re expected to fully reopen again.

Tracey Moss, senior employment expert at Citizens Advice, said: “The thought of returning to work after being furloughed, while juggling childcare, can be a daunting prospect.

“This is particularly the case for parents who would usually rely on family and friends for support, but can’t at the moment due to social distancing guidance.”

Can my employer make me take unpaid leave?

As a parent or guardian you're entitled to take time off work, also known as "parental leave".

The downside is you may not get paid during this period – this will come down to the terms and conditions in your contract.

It'll also be up to your employer to decide how much time off they give you.

Your first step should be to speak to your boss as soon as possible.

If they refuse to pay you during your time off, you may be able to negotiate a deal.

For example, you could ask to take holiday or lieu days – but again, this is down to the discretion of your employer.

Crucially, your boss can't make you work extra hours or make up the missed time.

Workers can take off up to 18 weeks unpaid leave before their child turns 18 as part of "parental leave".

Ideally, you should also tell your employer 21 days before you want to be off work – although your boss may be more flexible than this.

Alternatively, Citizens Advice says you can ask your employer for "dependent leave".

The difference between parental and dependent leave is that dependent leave can also apply to a partner, grandchild, parent, or anyone else who depends on you.

Dependent leave is usually used when you need to deal with an emergency at home or problems with your child.

Again, whether you get paid or not, and how much time off you can take, will depend on what your boss says.


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What other options do I have?

If you aren't able to negotiate paid leave with your work, you could consider one of these options.

Ask to be be furloughed: Employers are allowed to furlough staff if they're struggling to arrange childcare.

The coronavirus job retention scheme is where the government covers 80 per cent of the wages of furloughed staff, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month.

If you've already been furloughed, you could ask your boss if you can have this extended.

Ask about flexible working: You could speak to your boss about working from home.

It's worth highlighting that the government has said that everyone should work from home where possible.

You must have been with the same employer for at least 26 weeks to ask for flexible hours.

But again, this will ultimately be at the discretion of your boss and will only be an option for those whose jobs can be done remotely.

Ask about reduced hours: If you can't do your job from home, talk to your employer about reducing your hours.

Your boss can refuse to do this, and they can also cut your wages so be prepared to take a pay hit.

Ask to use holiday: If you've got holiday days to spare, you could ask your boss about using up some days to cover your childcare issues.

This could be used with a combination of unpaid days, if your employer allows.

However, it's worth forward-planning so you make sure you've got enough holiday days left to cover future events you've got planned.

We've also rounded up everything you need to know about paying child maintenance – including what happens if you’re self-employed or have been furloughed.

Plus, here's how furlough affects your benefits and Universal Credit payments.

If you're struggling because of coronavirus, check out the help being offered on bills, rent and mortgages.

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