School’s out – and the problems of inflexible and insecure work are laid bare
Published: 19 Mar 2020
By Julia Waltham, Joint Head of Policy & Influencing, Working Families.
Schools have closed because of the coronavirus, and for many, work-life boundaries will be going out the window. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
You’ve probably already seen the hilarious memes being shared far and wide on social media: parents trying to work from home whilst self-isolating; children running wild around them. Many parents in households already self-isolating and trying to work from home will identify with them.
But now schools are closing. And social distancing rules out many of the informal childcare options parents can normally depend on when their childcare arrangements break down. Many, many more parents will now need to juggle working from home with looking after their children – including continuing to support their learning.
Having a supportive, understanding employer has never been more important. These employers will simply need to have a sensible conversation with parents about what is needed and what is and isn’t possible, whilst parents and carers work from home over the coming weeks. For instance, working hours may have to be adaptable so that parents can use the most productive hours in their day to work without being constrained by their usual contractual working hours.
But what if you’re a parent or carer who can’t work from home? If you need to, you can use your right to emergency time off for dependants. We’d very much hope that employers that can afford to do so will continue to pay their staff as usual while they’re off caring for their children. We’re calling on the Government to provide support to employers that need it so they can continue to pay their staff, and to make it clear to all employers that parents and carers using emergency leave whilst schools are closed can’t be dismissed or treated unfavourably as a result.
This is particularly important for parents and carers in insecure work, who are at more risk of effectively losing their jobs. For parents and carers who are self-employed or on zero-hours contracts, for example, work may disappear because of social distancing. But if they can’t do the work from home (where, don’t forget, they’re currently looking after their children because schools have closed), they’d have to turn it down, and suffer lost income as a result.
Our most crucial ask of Government, therefore, is to ensure that parents and carers no longer being paid because of school closures continue to receive, at a minimum, pay for the hours they usually work at national minimum wage replacement levels. For those working irregular hours, pay should be based on how much they work on average.
Taken collectively, these measures from Government and employers might help working parents and carers weather this storm.
Taking a step back, this national emergency is really driving home the importance of adequately paid, flexible, and secure jobs with predictable hours for parents and carers. Insecure, low paid jobs that only pay when you can pick up shifts, leave you with no options if you get sick or if your childcare breaks down, and leave you vulnerable to being let go at will simply don’t work for families.
In addition, the drawbacks of the outdated, ‘nine-to-five in the office’ model have never been more apparent. Accommodating school closures and social distancing will surely be easier for parents working part-time jobs that can be done from home with hours spread across the week.
To end on a positive note: since the virus emerged, I’ve heard stories about children making guest appearances on video calls and saying ‘hello’ on conference calls. I hope the unique situation we’re in emboldens parents to be open about their childcare responsibilities in relation to work and moves more rigid employers toward a ‘can-do’ approach when it comes to flexible and family-friendly practices. These are the kind of benefits that will continue to be felt long after the coronavirus has run its course.
For more advice about employment rights and COVID-19 see Coronavirus (COVID-19) – what are my rights?