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In the eye of the storm
Published: 27 Apr 2020
By Sybille Raphael, Head of Legal Advice Services at Working Families.
How do you manage a team when its workload explodes? I manage Working Families’ free legal advice helpline and the number of people contacting us for help has increased six fold in the last month. Excitingly, but nerve-rackingly, we had to quickly grasp the legal and financial challenges the Coronavirus crisis has created. We have created (and constantly update) 5 dedicated webpages seen by over 160,000 people totalling 74 FAQs ranging from ‘Do I have a right not to go to work if the person I care for is vulnerable to coronavirus and supposed to be shielding?’ to ‘Can my employer choose to make me redundant instead of putting me on furlough?’.
It is also the charity’s role to amplify the voice of our callers. We flag the policy issues coming out of the crisis – and think of solutions. We’re all very conscious that as the charity for working parents and carers, this crisis is very much ‘our’ crisis. It’s a historic moment for Working Families, laying bare the struggles of having to balance work and caring responsibilities, and to find the time and income needed to keep families afloat. We were amongst the very first to raise the alarm that the furlough scheme in its first iteration was not open to parents and carers whose work had not disappeared but who just could not go to work because they had children or caring responsibilities at home. Government guidance was then changed to specifically include this.
And that’s obviously on top of ‘the day-to-day’: training and supervising volunteers, collecting, recording and analysing all the usual monitoring information on our callers, helping draft consultations, and supporting the charity’s efforts to fund this important work.
How have we risen to the challenge? By increasing the number of our volunteer solicitors helping us remotely via our digital platform. By using all the goodwill we can find; for example, having a bright A-level student give us 3 days a week to help with the monitoring admin (thank you Caitlin Russell). By welcoming a fantastic trainee from an extra supportive law firm (Linklaters) to our team free of charge 3 days a week (Rose Lynch – already a superb lawyer). By having a wonderful ex-colleague re-join the team (Will Hadwen, our benefits genius). And by leaning on the most splendid team (Rhiannon Maddocks and Natalia Byng, both excellent solicitors juggling work and home-schooling young daughters and Elena Cornaro, our bright star).
Workload is testing our limits – especially in lockdown (I have 4 children ranging from 4 to 15 years old and never before had I fully appreciated the luxury of not having to cook lunch for a full household during the week – or of not having to teach Year 3 maths). But it is the human misery we’re faced with which is the hardest challenge. Our callers’ stories are heartbreaking. Jamila is a cook in a hospital with a 15 month old daughter. The friend who usually babysits during her shifts is self-isolating. She cannot leave her baby alone at home, her boss refuses to furlough her and she has no other income. How do you react to, “What can I do? I will starve!” when you know that indeed, she can only at best take unpaid leave (the risk is that her manager will just sack her if she does not turn up to work).
I believe in the power of empathy. I know we helped Jamila by making her feel listened and acknowledged if nothing else. And I know that if I can keep on going, it is because of my marvellous team, our other amazing colleagues at Working Families, and the wider support of our volunteers and law firm partners.
In the eye of the storm, there is compassion.
If you would like to make a donation to help our legal advice service support more working parents and carers, please use the Charities Aid Foundation
For information about our helpline (0300 012 0312) see the opening hours.
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