A child being too ill to go to school when mum and dad have to go to work can be a major headache for parents.
But the TUC, the umbrella organisation for Britain’s trade unions, is reminding working mums and dads that they have the legal right to take time off work if their child’s poorly - although three quarters of working parents don’t take advantage of this right.
While illness accounted for two-thirds (64.2%) of the 19.8 million school days missed by children in the autumn term last year, it’s clear that many parents are unsure how to balance their working commitments with looking after their children when they’re ill, says the TUC.
The TUC outlines the following rights for parents whose children are ill:
• Statutory time off work to care for a dependent: As a working parent, you have the right to take reasonable time off to deal with a domestic emergency, which includes when your child’s ill and you need time to make alternative arrangements for their care. Talk to your boss as soon as a problem arises, giving them a reason for the absence and how long you expect to be away. Your employer may pay you, but doesn’t have to.
• Paid compassionate or carers’ leave: Some employers provide paid compassionate or carers’ leave. Typically this is around five days per year, to deal with situations like looking after poorly children. Check your employment contract or company handbook, or ask your union rep if you’re entitled to this.
• Sharing the burden: Remember that both parents are entitled to time off to look after ill children, so it shouldn’t be assumed that mothers will drop everything while fathers carry on as usual. Dads can request time off work to look after their children too.
“For most parents it’s a daily struggle trying to juggle work and childcare, which becomes even more complicated as children succumb to seasonal colds and illnesses,” says TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady.
“Sensible employers will give their staff time off to look after their children when they’re poorly, or to make alternative arrangements for their care.”
She says many unions have negotiated paid compassionate or carers’ leave in workplaces to help parents who have poorly children, and suggests “a change in the law, so that all working parents are entitled to take paid time off work when their child is ill and their usual childcare isn’t an option, would make a real difference”.
Will Hadwen, a rights advisor from the charity Working Families, says many parents don’t realise that time off for parents rights exist. However, she points out that although there’s a statutory right to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off to care for a dependent if there’s a domestic emergency, the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable is unclear.
“If you take a couple of days off a year because your child is sick or has to be collected from nursery or something like that, that’s probably perfectly reasonable,” she says.
“It’s what you would expect and it’s reasonable for the employer to bear that burden of somebody being off at short notice. It’s intended for emergencies, and the idea is that you take the minimum amount of time off, and return to work as soon as possible.”
But she says, if your child is frequently ill and you take a lot of time off, an employer could perceive that as unreasonable.
“The distinction between reasonable and unreasonable can be hazy, so if you’re going to need more than a few days off, it’s best to seek advice as early as possible.”
Hadwen says another right parents are often unclear about is parental leave, where parents can take 18 weeks’ unpaid leave per child up to the child’s 18th birthday.
To qualify, you must have responsibility for a child and have at least a year’s service with your current employer. Under the basic right, you have to take parental leave in blocks of one week or multiples of a week, and the statutory notice to employers is 21 days. The employer can’t refuse to grant the leave, although they can postpone it.
“Because it’s completely unpaid, people often don’t take it,” says Hadwen, who explains that while such leave can be taken for no reason other than just to spend time with a child, often parents take it when there’s been a family breakdown, or perhaps when a child’s moved schools.
She points out that carers’ leave is disproportionately taken by women, who often don’t see that it could be the responsibility of their partner as well.
“It makes sense to spread the burden,” she advises.
• For more information and advice about parental rights at work, ring the Working Families helpline on 0300 012 0312, or email [email protected]