Working parents have voiced fears they are more vulnerable to redundancy now the government is advising a return to the workplace as the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
Everyone’s life has changed beyond recognition since the pandemic struck the UK early in 2020. This led to the first lockdown, beginning on 23rd March 2020, when much of the business world ground to a halt.
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The government introduced the furlough scheme, ensuring employees of non-essential businesses that had temporarily closed would still have a job to go back to after the pandemic. It permitted all UK employers with employees on PAYE tax to designate them as “furloughed” workers.
The government says 11.6 million employees have been supported by furlough since the first lockdown began, at an estimated cost of £66 billion by the time it finishes, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.
It was feared that more than one in ten workers would be unemployed during the pandemic. Thanks to furlough, the unemployment rate is below one in 20 people.
Ironically, lifting the restrictions has made working parents fear for their jobs in the future. When the first lockdown began, causing businesses and schools to close, working parents didn’t know how they would manage. Juggling working from home with childcare through the pandemic posed a massive challenge.
It was made more complicated by parents having to home-educate their children at the same time. However, workers have got used to being at home, whether they are on furlough, or working remotely. They are accustomed to the more flexible working arrangements that the pandemic has enabled.
Families have spent more time together and there has been a shift from parents being out at work all day to one or both being at home. They have enjoyed the flexibility that the lockdown has brought and have been fitting work in around family life.
Now people are returning to the office, 29% of working parents are concerned they will be more vulnerable to redundancy when the furlough ends.
After juggling work and childcare throughout the pandemic, 50% of parents don’t want to return to less flexible working. As the final restrictions lift, they fear it will have a negative effect on the family life they have been able to cultivate.
During the pandemic, 40% of working parents said responsibilities such as childcare and housework had been shared more evenly than before, with 35% aiming to keep this up in future. However, because of their responsibilities, working parents fear their need to be more flexible will go against them when everyone is going back to work in October.
There are 13 million working parents in the UK and now, large numbers are calling on the government and employers to prevent a “backward step” in work-life balance when the final restrictions are phased out. They are calling for jobs to continue to be flexible. They also suggest designing and advertising jobs as being flexible from the outset.
A new campaign called #FlexTheUK has been launched by the Working Families group to support the many working parents who fear their return to work will mean less flexible work or even job loss. They do not wish to lose the positive changes the pandemic has brought for family life.
Campaigners are urging the government to bring forward its Employment Bill in 2022 and to include a clause for employers to make jobs more flexible, unless there is a sound business case not to do so. It aims to make employment more secure for working parents.
In 2019, before the pandemic began, 75% of mothers with children aged 14 years and younger were in employment. This compared with 92% of fathers with children in the same age bracket.
However, 28% of mothers said they had found it necessary to reduce their working hours due to childcare needs. This compared with just under 5% of fathers who had reduced their hours for the same reason.
Parents with younger children suffered most when trying to work. Those whose youngest child was aged four years and under faced more obstacles in terms of childcare, with 34% saying they had problems. Only 20% of parents with children aged 11 to 14 years had similar problems.
The number of mothers in work with dependent children has increased since 2000, when only 66% of them were in regular employment. With mainly mothers, rather than fathers, having to reduce their working hours to solve childcare issues, they fear they will be the first to go, should redundancies be on the cards when furlough ends.
The survey by YouGov revealed working parents had mixed experiences when it came to employment. Many were satisfied their employer had supported them during the pandemic in managing childcare. They had been permitted to change their working pattern to cope with home schooling.
However, 19% of working parents said they had received no support whatsoever from their employer. They are now concerned that once everyone returns to work in the autumn, their jobs will be under threat.
What rights do working parents have?
Working parents’ fears that they may be more vulnerable to redundancy may have some substance, although officially, you can’t be laid off because your children affect the hours you can work.
The current legislation permits parents to ask their employer for flexible hours if they fulfil various criteria: you must be an employee and not an agency worker; you must also have worked for your present employer for at least six months (26 weeks). However, the employer does not have to agree to the request automatically, although must consider it.
Considering 28% of mothers have had to reduce their working hours already due to their children’s needs, it may become too difficult to work if the employer is unsympathetic, although they can’t be laid off for this reason.
The employee can ask to change their working hours, days and even place of work to accommodate childcare needs. The employer isn’t bound by law to find the employee a different job, however, and they can refuse such a request for various reasons including whether the change will cost the company more money; a detrimental effect on meeting customer demand; an inability to reorganise the work among other staff; or an inability to recruit extra staff.
Other reasons for refusal include having a detrimental effect on the quality of your business’s products or services; a negative effect on performance; or a lack of available work during the periods when the employee wishes to work. If the employer refuses the request for flexible working, they must clearly explain the reasons.
Sadly, for some parents, the hassle of trying to deal with balancing work and childcare becomes too much. When the cost of childcare becomes too expensive, it is normally the mother who gives up her job.
A survey of UK mothers with pre-school children revealed 25% of the non-working respondents had wanted to work, but couldn’t afford to do so because of childcare needs. The survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed all parents viewed the availability of flexible work as a key factor in deciding whether they could work or not.
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