From the legal frontline of coronavirus: the diary of a Working Families adviser
Published: 1 Apr 2020
Since the COVID-19 outbreak started, Working Families has received an unprecedented number of queries from parents and carers who are in dire straits due to the virus. Below is an update from our rights adviser Elena Cornaro on the crucial work our legal advice team is doing to help those who need us most in the midst of this uncertainty. If you want to support the work we do helping parents and carers across the UK, please donate today.
To put it mildly, the coronavirus has been a rollercoaster for UK families and legal advisers alike. During the week of 16 March, this was the state of play:
- Furlough: The government introduces the coronavirus job retention scheme, which covers 80% of wages. We feel so uplifted by this news, and we think it will also be available to parents who couldn’t work from home because of childcare commitments.
- Self-employed support: There is no equivalent support for self-employed people.
- Pregnant/vulnerable employees: Public Health England guidance suggests that if you were particularly vulnerable, you are to stay at home for 2 weeks. This includes pregnant women. It is our understanding that if you were pregnant, you could be off work and claim Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).
Then, last week (w/c 23 March):
- Furlough: We no longer think furlough pay is available for parents who cannot work because of childcare responsibilities, it seems to be only for people whose job no longer exists. Government guidance five days ago said the scheme is intended to ‘avoid redundancies’ and redundancies only happen where the job itself is no longer necessary, not where the job exists but you personally can’t do it because of childcare responsibilities.
- Self-employed support: Self-employed people can now also access 80% pay. Win!
- Pregnant/vulnerable employees: Guidance from the government seems to have changed. It seems you can no longer claim SSP just because you’re vulnerable, you (or someone in your household) actually has to be displaying symptoms for you to claim SSP. So pregnant women cannot stay home just because of fear of infection.
One step forward, two steps back. And today (31 March):
- Furlough: The government has removed the reference to ‘redundancies’ on its guidance. Does this insinuate they are broadening the purpose of the scheme? Is it really up to the employer to decide who to furlough? And if so, could parents who can’t work from home because of childcare also access it even if their job is not at risk of redundancy? We’re still unclear.
- NRPF: there’s a High Court case on Friday re: suspending the no recourse to public funds policy – read the tweet here. We’ve had many clients affected by this who can’t currently work & are not entitled to financial help due to these rules.
With government advice changing daily and in some cases not being very precise or clear, advice is needed now more than ever. Our phones are constantly ringing and our inboxes are constantly pinging; we’re receiving around four times the amount of queries we usually do.
As of today, nearly 34,000 people have visited our dedicated advice pages for COVID-19, which we are constantly updating along with government guidance.
We’re hearing heartbreaking stories every day. We’ve heard from Emma, a single mum whose employer is not allowing her to work from home, despite the fact that her other colleagues (who aren’t single parents) are being actively encouraged to do so. We’ve heard from Amanprit, a pregnant woman whose workplace was not taking any health and safety precautions to protect workers during COVID-19. When she refused to go to work to protect her health and that of her baby, she was dismissed without notice. And we’ve heard from Sian, a mother who is unable to juggle working from home with caring for her two young children. She rang us in tears because she was told that taking unpaid leave was her only option.
These stories are just a snapshot of the ways parents and carers are struggling during this pandemic. Especially concerning to us are the parents getting stuck with unpaid time off for dependants without the option to be furloughed and the parents who aren’t getting paid whilst “shielding” with someone vulnerable at home. One thing is for sure: our mission of helping people balance their work and caring responsibilities has taken on a whole new meaning these last few weeks.
We always search for silver linings, and in this case, ours is hearing back from the people we’ve managed to help. Yesterday we received an e-mail from Liz, who sought advice for her daughter. She wrote, “My daughter wrote a fantastic letter putting forward a legal argument with cross referencing. As a result she did get furlough. Thank you!” We hope to hear many more of these happy endings in the coming months.
For information about our helpline see the opening hours.
You can also contact our legal team via our online form.
For coronavirus-related advice please see:
- General information on rights
- Financial Support that might be available
- Issues for new and future parents
- Furlough and redundancy
- Guidance for carers