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What are your rights if schools have closed, but your work wants you to return?

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Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·3-min read
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Young mother working from home with daughter
Returning to work could be a challenge for parents if nurseries and schools remain shut. Photo: Getty

For many parents, the last few months have been a real struggle. Juggling childcare responsibilities and work isn’t easy at the best of times, but with many people having to work from home, it has been even harder.

With lockdown restrictions easing in the UK, employers have begun bringing their staff back from home-working and furlough. But this poses another challenge for parents, particularly if nurseries and schools remain shut and finding childcare isn’t an option.

So what are your rights as a working parent — and what should you do if being back in the workplace is difficult for you?

Speak to your employer

“If schools close and parents are struggling to find childcare and they therefore need to work from home, parents should have a discussion with their employer about their working arrangements,” says Louise Lawrence, a partner in the employment team at Winckworth Sherwood.

READ MORE: Lockdown is breaking the stigma of juggling work and parenting

“In normal circumstances it would not be appropriate for employees to work from home while also providing childcare,” she adds. “The current situation has, however, led to employers being more flexible because of the difficult issues employees have been facing.”

Speak to your manager about your situation and why returning to work might be hard for you. It can help to suggest reasonable solutions, such as working remotely a few days a week.

“The employer may agree that the parents can undertake flexible hours, for example, undertaking work during nap-times and evenings, part-time work or be more flexible around deadlines and targets.”

When can you refuse to go back to work?

Working parents don’t have the right to refuse to return to their workplace, unless they have concerns about whether their workplace is safe to work in.

According to Section 44 of the Employment Act, you have the right to question safety arrangements at your place of work without recrimination. If you were to refuse to return, you would have to have a valid reason for doing so. This might be because you’re in a high risk group for COVID-19, for example.

“Employees with more than one year’s service have a statutory right to request unpaid parental leave of up to 18 weeks per child, which could be utilised where there are child care issues,” Lawrence says.

READ MORE: What happens to furloughed workers when the government scheme ends?

“No more than four weeks’ leave can be taken in a year and employers have the right to postpone the taking of the leave for up to six months if it would unduly disrupt the business.”

Employees with more than one year’s service also have a statutory right to request flexible working, for example, to work from home or reduced hours.

“An employer has the right to refuse a request for flexible working on the basis of one of the eight reasons included in the legislation. E.g, the detrimental effect on the ability to meet customer demand,” she explains.

“If an employee has proven they can successfully work flexibly during lockdown and they make a formal request for flexible working to their employer, it may be difficult for the employer to reject this based on one of the eight statutory reasons.”

READ MORE: How to mentally prepare for returning to work after furlough

If you still don’t want to return you could ask for time off as holiday or unpaid leave, but your employer does not have to agree to it.

What rights do working parents have if schools don’t reopen in September — or if they shut again?

“Unless the government makes any changes to legislation, parents’ rights will not change if schools do not reopen in September,” Lawrence says.

“Hopefully, however, employers would be prepared to be more flexible about ways of working as this would impact a large proportion of the workforce.”