With most schools, further education and sixth form colleges as well as nurseries in the UK set to close from today (20 March 2020) in an attempt to stop the COVID-19 outbreak, what are the implications from an employment law perspective?
Will All Schools Close?
No, some schools will remain open for key workers. These can be found via this link and checking with your local authority, although many have not been confirmed as at the time of writing this blog.
Who Are the Key Workers?
The full list was published yesterday and can be found here. It includes NHS staff, emergency services, those involved in food production and delivery drivers, amongst others, to ensure vital services in the UK can continue.
What Happens for Those Who Aren’t Key Workers?
Obviously the school closures will cause childcare issues for many employees.
If employees who aren’t key workers and who have children are able to work from home, then they should be allowed to, so far as is possible. Employers will have to appreciate that there will be some inevitable disruption and productivity is unlikely to be at its usual levels. A temporary change to working hours could be explored to address this so that staff are able to work around their childcare responsibilities, if possible.
For those who are not able to work from home, the law allows time off to care for dependants, however, this is usually only a right to reasonable time off, and is intended to cover emergency situations whilst alternative childcare arrangements are made.
Of course, this poses further issues than would otherwise be the case as government guidance is that those over 70 and with certain pre-existing medical conditions are more at risk from COVID-19 and strongly encouraged to adhere to the social distancing recommendations. This means that parents and other relatives who might usually be able to assist in a childcare crisis, would not be available.
Is Dependants Leave Paid?
This is the other issue. Dependants leave is usually unpaid, unless an employer provides otherwise. This will inevitably cause further concern to employees at a time when financial pressures are at the fore of most people’s minds.
Are There Any Other Options?
The law also allows parents to take up to 18 weeks of parental leave per child, until they reach the age of 18, provided they have worked for the same employer for at least one year.
Is Parental Leave Paid?
No, employees do not have to be paid for taking this sort of time off, again unless an employer agrees otherwise. It is also usually limited to a maximum of four weeks per year, per child.
Usually it is necessary to give 21 days’ notice of parental leave, but some employers might choose to relax this in the circumstances.
What About Taking Holiday or Lieu Days?
Yes, allowing staff to take some of the days as annual leave, to ensure an income stream is also possible, if an employer agrees, but there may be limits imposed on what can be taken, for example, only the holiday that has accrued so far this year, which will not cover the period of school closures that is expected.
Is the Government Going to Introduce Anything Else?
We are expecting an announcement from the government this afternoon with further measures it intends to implement to help support employees and businesses. We will share further details as soon as we have them.