Last updated 31 March 2020.
*PLEASE FOLLOW ANY GOVERNMENT GUIDANCE IN CONJUNCTION WITH THIS ARTICLE AS GUIDANCE ON THE CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) IS CHANGING DAILY*
You might also want to look at our information about furlough and redundancy, our page on what financial support you might be able to claim and our page for new and expecting parents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Taking time off work
My workplace hasn’t shut. Do I have to go in to work if I’m worried about catching coronavirus?
The government announced on 23 March that everyone should work from home if they can. You can only go into work if your work ‘absolutely cannot be done from home’.
If you are a ‘key worker’, you may still be able to work from home. The government has advised everyone who can work from home to do so.
If you absolutely cannot work from home and your workplace has not yet shut, then you should continue going into work.
If you are afraid of catching coronavirus, your employer may agree to let you take some leave so that you do not have to come into work. Your employer may be willing to agree for you to take annual leave, unpaid leave, unpaid parental leave, a sabbatical or other period of leave. You would need to check how long the leave could last and if the leave would be paid or unpaid. If you need further advice on what benefits you could claim during this time, we have a specific website page on financial support for families whose income is affected by coronavirus.
But bear in mind that your employer has a duty to protect your health and safety. If you are pregnant, or you or one of your ‘dependants’ (family members like children who live with you and need you) have a pre-existing condition which would make you (or your dependants at home) very vulnerable to Coronavirus such as an auto-immune illness, you could argue that it would be a breach of your employment contract (more specifically a breach of the mutual duty of trust and confidence) to force you to come to work. If your illness means that you’re a disabled person your employer would be required to consider this as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ under the Equality Act 2010.
If you work for the NHS and are (without the necessary protective equipment) in contact with high numbers of patients with confirmed or suspected cases of Coronavirus, you could also potentially argue that your work puts you in a serious and imminent danger of catching the virus yourself and refuse to come to work for that reason. In our view you would be protected from dismissal (a dismissal for refusing to come to work in those circumstances would be automatically unfair, section 100 of the Employment Rights Act) but you would not be entitled to pay – see below.
Am I allowed time off work if I have to care for my children (who are now off school) or someone else who depends on me?
All UK schools have closed for most pupils until further notice due to COVID-19. Schools will remain open for children of ‘key workers’ and children who are considered vulnerable. Vulnerable children includes children with education, health and care plans.
The government has outlined a list of who is considered to be a key worker. Many key workers will be able to ensure that their children are kept at home. Schools will only remain open for those children whose parents are key workers and who cannot also ensure that their children stay at home while they work.
If you can work from home
If your child cannot continue going to school, and it is at all possible for you to work from home, you should. The impact that working from home has on your employer’s business should not be taken into account when making the decision of whether or not you can work from home, as it would be for a normal flexible working request – the government has advised that insofar as it is possible, you should work from home.
If you cannot work from home
If you cannot work from home, then you have the right to take time off for dependants. This is unpaid unless that’s a perk in your contract/employer’s policy or practice. See our page on time off for dependants for more details. This concerns not just children, but other dependants too, like a partner or parent. Time off for dependants usually lasts only a couple of days, it is aimed to allow you time to organise the care of your dependant. But for now, our view is that this could last for much longer as long as the schools are closed and people are told to avoid all but the necessary travel. In today’s circumstances, most people have no other childcare options they can organise!
You can also take unpaid parental leave, which can last for much longer but bear in mind your employer might be able to postpone this if the business would be particularly disrupted (whereas they cannot postpone time off for dependants). Strictly speaking, you need to give notice to take unpaid parental leave, but given the circumstances, your employer may let you take the leave even if you cannot give the required notice.
If you can take special leave (that your employer has agreed specifically because of the coronavirus or as part as a more general kind of compassionate leave policy that some employers have), then this could be a good option.
Check also if you’re not in a ‘self-isolation’ situation (see section on schools being shut) and are able to claim statutory sick pay instead. And see our website article on benefits you can claim if you are on unpaid leave.
Your employer may also allow you to take some annual leave.
If you are suddenly left without income, there may be certain benefits that you could claim and our page on financial support for working families during the covid-19 crisis for more information).
I am a carer for someone who is considered to be in the ‘high risk’ group for coronavirus. Should I self-isolate?
At the moment (last updated 30 March 2020), government guidance only requires people to self isolate if they are displaying symptoms of coronavirus or someone in their household is displaying symptoms. Self-isolating is very extreme and requires you to stay indoors at all times. You would not be allowed to go outside, not even to buy food or do exercise. You can see more advice on self-isolation on the NHS website.
If nobody in your household is displaying symptoms, you would not be required to self-isolate but you should still stay home wherever possible, especially given government guidance yesterday that nobody should leave their house except in limited circumstances (see more below).
Staying at home
The government has announced that anyone who is able to work from home should do so. The government also announced that you should not leave your house except in the following circumstances:
- to shop for basic essentials – only when you really need to
- to do one form of exercise a day – such as a run, walk or cycle, alone or with other people you live with
- for any medical need – for example, to visit a pharmacy or deliver essential supplies to a vulnerable person
- to travel to and from work – but only where this is absolutely necessary
If your workplace has shut and you cannot work from home, then it might be that your job is no longer being carried out. To avoid employers having to lay off employees in this scenario, the government has introduced the ‘coronavirus retention scheme’. Under the scheme, all UK employers will be able to access support to continue paying part of their employees’ salary for those employees that would otherwise have been laid off during this crisis. The government will cover 80% of your wages (to a max of £2,500p/m gross) – see the ‘furloughed workers’ section on the government guidance. In our understanding, this is more aimed at employees who do not have any more work because of covid-19 (for example, someone working in retail) and who cannot work from home because of the nature of their job rather than someone who cannot work from home because of childcare responsibilities, but we are awaiting clarification on this.
Carers and those living with vulnerable people
If you live with vulnerable people (e.g. those over 70 or with pre-existing conditions), then the government recommends taking extra precautions to minimise the risk of exposure to the vulnerable people you live with.
The NHS has also written to everyone considered to be at risk of severe illness if they catch the coronavirus. You may have received the letter yourself, either as someone in this ‘high risk’ group or as the named carer of someone else who is. If a person you care for has received this letter, the instructions are very clear. They must stay at home at all times and avoid all face-to-face contact for at least 12 weeks, except from you as their carer and healthcare workers continuing to provide medical care.
It may also be useful to have a look at the following guidance that Carer’s UK has created on Coronavirus.
What is the risk that my employer treats me as absent without authorisation?
It is important to inform your employer as soon as possible in writing of the reason why you’re not coming to work. For instance, it maybe because someone in your home or you start developing symptoms which means you have to self-isolate, or you have to care for a dependant (see above).
Failure to inform your employer may mean they treat your absence as unauthorised, but if you do inform them and the reasons of your absence is one of the above, your absence will be justified – indeed the government says you must stay at home if you develop certain symptoms, however mild. In any case, we would recommend that you keep a record of everything agreed in writing.
Can I get sick pay if I’m off work?
If you are self-isolating in accordance with the government’s advice (i.e. because you or someone in your household is displaying symptoms), you should be treated as on sick leave and so may be entitled to sick pay.
The government’s online guidance for employees says that to make it easier for people to provide evidence to their employer that they need to stay at home, they have developed an alternative form of evidence to the fit note, called an ‘isolation note’, that you can access online via the NHS website.
Your employer may have updated their sickness absence policies in light of the Coronavirus outbreak. Check with your employer as regards your entitlement to sick pay and also the impact on your sickness record if you need to self-isolate.
If your employer doesn’t offer contractual sick pay, most employees will still be eligible for statutory sick pay (SSP). Your employer should pay you SSP in place of your salary whilst you are self-isolating. The government has confirmed that employees will be eligible for SSP from day 1 of sick leave when self isolating to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, rather than day four (the usual rule).
But bear in mind that self-isolation (when you our someone in your household has symptoms and you should not go out even to go shopping) is different from social distancing (when no-one in your household has any symptoms but you’re choosing to stay at home to avoid contamination). Unfortunately, you’re only eligible for SSP if you have evidence from a doctor that you’re unable to work, or in self-isolation cases (where you or someone in your household displays symptoms), not in social distancing cases.
If you are furloughed under the new coronavirus job retention scheme which was announced on 20 March, and become sick, you will receive your furloughed pay (80% or more of wages) instead of receiving SSP only.
Can my employer count my absence towards my sickness record?
The government announced on 23 March that everyone who can work from home, should do so. You can only go into work if your work ‘absolutely cannot be done from home’.
As long as you are not actually sick, you should work from home (if possible), and your employer cannot count this as absence since you are working.
If you are sick, this should be accepted as sick absence by your employer. If you are showing signs of coronavirus, you should not go to see your GP to get a sick note. Instead, the NHS has produced an online version of the sick note called an ‘isolation note’, which your employer should accept. See our financial support page for information on sick pay and benefits you may be able to claim while you’re off sick.
Your employer should record your sickness absence in the usual way in line with their sickness policy. Many employers will update their policies to make it clear that absence related to Coronavirus will not be taken into account in attendance or management procedures that could impact on your employment. Even if your workplace policies haven’t been updated, we would not expect your employer to be taking the coronavirus-related absence into account in making any decisions in relation to disciplinaries or dismissals.
If you remain concerned about taking sick leave, you could consider whether there are any alternative options available to you.
Your employer may also be willing to agree for you to take annual leave, unpaid leave, unpaid parental leave, a sabbatical or other period of leave. You would need to check how long the leave could last and if the leave would be paid or unpaid. If you need further advice on what benefits you could claim during this time, we have a specific website page on financial support for families whose income is affected by coronavirus.
You may be able claim unfair dismissal if your employer decided to dismiss you because of sickness absence taken in relation to coronavirus. We would strongly emphasise that although this sick leave is likely to be noted on your sickness record, it is vital you do not continue going to work while displaying symptoms.
Can I take or change my annual leave?
Your employer may ask you to use your annual leave to cover the period of self-isolation. You will be paid as normal. You can also ask your employer to change your annual leave dates, but there’s no legal obligation for your employer to agree. If you want to take leave at a specific time, your employer can refuse the dates you want to take, for example if it would leave them short-staffed.
You should follow any specific rules set out in your contract or another workplace agreement about how to request holiday. In the absence of anything to the contrary in your contract, then the default rules are as follows:
- you would need to give at least twice as much notice as the period of holiday you want to take (so, to take 2 days’ holiday you would need to give 4 days’ notice); and
- your employer could refuse your request by giving the same amount of notice as the holiday it wishes to refuse (so, to refuse 2 days’ holiday the employer would need to give at least 2 days’ notice).
But also bear in mind that if your employer cannot cover staff costs due to COVID-19, they may be able to access support to continue paying part of your wage, to avoid redundancies. Your employer could apply to the government to cover 80% of your wages (to a max of £2,500p/m gross) through the coronavirus job retention scheme (see the ‘furloughed workers’ section on the government guidance. In our understanding, the coronavirus job retention scheme is aimed at employees who do not have any more work because of covid-19 (for example, someone working in retail, hair salon, construction etc.) and who cannot work from home because of the nature of their job rather than someone who cannot work from home because of childcare responsibilities, but we are awaiting clarification on this (see the section on the Job Rentention Scheme).
Can I carry over my annual leave into next year if I can’t take it?
The government has just announced that it is allowing workers to carry over up to four weeks (not 5.6 weeks) annual leave into the next two leave years.
This will allow leave to be taken sometime in the following two years but only where the holiday leave was not taken in this current holiday year as a result of the effects of coronavirus.
What if my employer asks me to stay home? Is it a suspension? Will I be paid?
If you can work from home, you should be paid your salary as normal and your sick leave should not be affected. Even if home working isn’t usually allowed, check with your employer if you are allowed to work from home.
If you cannot work from home (maybe because you are a shop or factory worker) and your job is no longer being carried out at your place of work, then your employer can apply to the government to cover 80% of your wages (to a max of £2,500p/m) through the coronavirus job retention scheme. This should not affect your sick leave.
Under the coronavirus job retention scheme, all UK employers will be able to access support to continue paying part of their employees’ salary for those employees that would otherwise have been laid off during this crisis – see the ‘furloughed workers’ section on the government guidance. In our understanding, this is more aimed at employees who do not have any more work because of covid-19 (for example, someone working in retail) and who cannot work from home because of the nature of their job rather than someone who cannot work from home because of childcare responsibilities, but we are awaiting clarification on this.
I am a key worker but I have dependants with an underlying illness who would be higher risk. Can I refuse to send them to the care schools being setting up for key workers? I want to go to work and help but my children are my priority.
Whilst schools will remain open for any children of key workers, the government guidance is that if it is possible for a child to be at home then they should be. Based on that advice, you don’t have to send your children to school if there are adequate care arrangements at home.
There is currently no government guidance to say that those sharing a household with people who are at higher risk (such as your dependents with underlying illness) should self-isolate (see question 14), so since you are a key worker, your employer will probably expect you to go into work if it is absolutely necessary for you to do so. If you do not go into work you would not be entitled to be paid and you could be at risk of disciplinary action.
However, the government has also issued guidance to say that anyone who can work from home, should do so (including key workers).
And of course, if anyone in your household becomes ill then you must self-isolate for 14 days from the date that the first person begins showing symptoms, and if you yourself become ill then you should self-isolate for 7 days from when you first begin showing symptoms (based on guidance as at 20 March). Should these situations arise then you would be entitled to statutory sick pay from day 1 of your illness or self-isolation (or enhanced sick pay depending on your employer’s policy).
Given that you don’t want to go into work, you might want to consider applying for parental leave. Under the default scheme, employees with at least one year’s service are entitled to request parental leave to care for a child. Assuming you qualify, a parent can take up to 4 weeks per year per child (up to a maximum of 18 weeks in total per child) Employers may have different schemes in place so do check. Please note parental leave is unpaid and your employer may not agree to the period of leave being taken immediately.
Aside from the parental leave option, it is worth talking to your employer generally about anything they might be able to do – they will hopefully be flexible and understanding in the current circumstances, especially given that your dependents are in a high risk category. Your employer may be open to other arrangements to allow you to look after your children, including such things as more flexible or shorter working hours, or a period of paid or unpaid holiday.
If only one parent or carer is a key worker, can I send my children to school?
The Department for Education has issued guidance to say that ‘Children with at least one parent or carer who is critical to the COVID-19 response can attend school if required.
However, many families with a parent or carer working in critical sectors will be able to ensure their child is kept at home. Every child who can be safely cared for at home should be, to limit the chance of the virus spreading.’
We’ve included some information about how Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have applied this guidance below:
- Northern Ireland: ni.gov.uk has not given any guidance that differs from that of the UK Department of Education, so at this stage the assumption is that if one parent is a key worker, then their child can continue going to school if it is not possible for the other parent to care for them at home.
- Wales: gov.wales has not given any guidance that differs from that of the UK Department of Education, so at this stage the assumption is that if one parent is a key worker, then their child can continue going to school if it is not possible for the other parent to care for them at home.
- Scotland: The Scottish government website has published guidance to say that ‘if one parent is a key worker and the other is not, the non-key worker should normally be expected to provide childcare. If it is at all possible for the children to be at home, then they should be.’
So the assumption is that the parent who is not a key worker should normally be looking after the child(ren). But if it is not at all possible for you to provide childcare at home and only one of you is a key worker, your children should be able to continue going to school.
For more information on childcare provisions for key workers, contact your local authority.
I’m a key worker but my child’s school/nursery has shut. What can I do about childcare?
If your child’s school or nursery has shut, then the local authority should ensure that your children can still attend school elsewhere. If your school hasn’t already informed you of those arrangements, please contact your local authority and they should make alternative arrangements.
How does the guidance on schools for children of key workers vary in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales?
There may be slight variations in how childcare is being provided across different parts of the UK. The following webpages will be able to give you more specific guidance if you do not live in England:
- Northern Ireland (and a list of schools open for children of key workers: https://www.education-ni.gov.uk/publications/schools-open-supervised-learning-key-workers-children-and-vulnerable-children)
Working from home
My employer has said I wouldn’t be able to work from home because I have my children at home and I’m a single parent. Can they do that?
Your employer has the right to expect that when you’re working, you’re actually working, not babysitting. But if you can reassure them that you will be working, maybe explaining that you will spread your working hours so that you work some hours when your children are asleep, there is no reason why they should treat you differently to other employees who are not parents. You could otherwise potentially argue breach of contract: the duty of mutual trust and confidence which in those exceptional times would require employers to allow employees to work from home as much as possible.
You could tell them that if they think your performance is not up to scratch, they could treat it as a performance/productivity issue, but at least give it a try.
If you are a woman, you can also argue that this kind of policy is indirect sex discrimination. A blanket ban of home working for single parents with young children impacts more women than men because women tend to have more childcare responsibilities than men. If your employer has allowed some of your male colleagues (especially if they are also parents) to work from home, this could also be direct sex discrimination.
I’m working from home but now that I have the children, I’m often interrupted and my employer insists that I either devote the whole day to work or take time off for dependants and have the day unpaid. What can I do to persuade them to let me work my hours but spread in the best possible way and with childcare interruptions allowed?
It is true that, when you are working, your employer has the right to expect that you are devoting your attention to working rather than looking after your children.
However, this is an exceptional situation and many employers are exercising common sense and flexibility to allow employees to reduce or vary their working hours or pattern to enable them to work around childcare needs. If you think this is an option in your role then you should raise that with your employer. Explain how the pattern could work for you and them.
If your employer does not agree to your request then you have the option to make a formal request for flexible working. Make clear your request is only temporary, or if accepted, it will become a permanent change to your contract. We would suggest asking for the new work pattern to remain in place for as long as the government request people work from home due to Coronavirus. However, this will not provide an immediate outcome because of the time your employer is permitted to respond to your request and your employer may still refuse your request. In addition, this would be a permanent change to your working arrangements, unless agreed otherwise (you cannot insist on a temporary change).
In our view, you could also potentially argue that not to allow you the flexibility you need is in today’s exceptional times a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence and – if you are a woman – sex discrimination. See the section on single parents above.
Other options available would be to:
- taking annual leave;
- using unpaid dependent leave. Please note time off for dependents only applies to employees (not workers or the self-employed).
- Using parental leave – parent employees who have at least one year’s service are entitled to 4 weeks of unpaid parental leave per year per child. There are notice requirements for the leave but in such circumstances your employer may waive these.
If you cannot agree working arrangements which enable you to look after your children and you cannot afford to take unpaid leave, then do remember the government is reviewing the rules on benefits. See here for more information.
I feel as though I am being targeted because I have children. Do I have any rights?
If you are a woman with children, then being treated negatively or being forced to take unpaid leave as a result of childcare responsibilities could potentially amount to indirect discrimination, as childcare responsibilities impact women more than men. This is especially important if you feel like your employer might be using this as an excuse to make you take unpaid leave when it could otherwise agree to more flexible arrangements You may wish to consider raising this to encourage your employer to agree your request, but try to do so in a neutral manner.
Will I be able to claim any benefits while I’m off work because of coronavirus?
Working Families have a separate website article on financial support that is available if your income has gone down because of covid-19.
If you are self-isolating in accordance with government guidelines, you may be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay. You may also be eligible for increased awards of benefits you are already claiming or make a new claim for Universal Credit if you are not already claiming benefits (see below).
If you are already claiming benefits (in particular working tax credit, child tax credit, income support, housing benefit and income-based employment and support allowance), your award for these benefits may increase while your income is lower during the period of self-isolation. This is the case whether or not you will be claiming Statutory Sick Pay.
If you are not already claiming any other benefits, you may be able to claim Universal Credit if you are on unpaid leave or only receiving Statutory Sick Pay. Beware that making a claim for Universal Credit will replace any existing claims you have for working tax credit, child tax credit, housing benefit, income support, income-based employment and support allowance and income-based jobseeker’s allowance. So if you are already claiming any of these benefits, you should seek advice from a benefits expert before deciding to claim Universal Credit instead.
To check your eligibility, use this online benefits calculator on the Entitled To website.
Remember too that the government has advised that anyone who is able to work from home, should do. Also, all employees with 26 weeks service can request flexible working, even on a temporary basis. Find out more information about Flexible Working.
This advice applies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If you live in another part of the UK, the law may differ. Please call our helpline for more details.
If you have further questions and would like to contact our advice team please use our advice contact form below or call us.
Please use our Advice contact form (blue button below) if you need advice.