COVID-19: coping with unplanned caring responsibilities

Many of you will be struggling during the continuing COVID-19 crisis because of unplanned caring responsibilities for vulnerable or elderly adults, or for children who are unable to go to school or their normal care provider.

Although childcare bubbles are allowed in England, where one household links with one other household to provide informal, unpaid childcare, additional flexibility in working hours may be required in order to try to co-ordinate this informal arrangement.

Similar informal childcare arrangements are also allowed in all the devolved nations.

How can I continue working and cope with unplanned caring responsibilities?

As of 5 January 2021, England returned to a national lockdown. Once again, the UK government’s emphasis is on staying at home for everyone and only leaving for work if you cannot reasonably work from home.

See country-specific guidance for the devolved nations:

Working from home therefore continues to be regarded as one clear way of keeping staff safe from the virus.  It may also provide a way for you to manage unexpected caring responsibilities.

Is your employer encouraging all who can work from home, to do so?

Most carers are still women.  If an employer insists on all staff returning to their normal workplace without considering their caring responsibilities during the continuing pandemic, it may therefore particularly disadvantage women.  It could be a form of indirect sex discrimination if a requirement cannot be objectively justified.

Your employer should seriously consider the support that can be offered to workers with caring responsibilities, including allowing them to work from home if possible.

What if I can’t work from home?

If it is not possible for you to work from home, your employer may consider redeploying you to a suitable alternative job that you can undertake from home, as long as you agree to this alternative job. If this is not possible, your employer may furlough you under the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

What if I’m struggling to balance caring or home-schooling with working from home?

You may also find that you are not able to both work from home and fulfil your caring responsibilities safely.

It would then be important to try to get your employer to consider an option of furloughing you.  Employers can now continue to furlough staff under the government’s Job Retention Scheme until the end of April 2021, either on a part-time or full-time basis, as long as you were on the payroll on 30 October 2020.  The employer will have to pay your wages for any hours that you are in work and you will also receive 80% of your wages for hours not worked.

The UK government has specifically said that employees who are “unable to work because they have caring responsibilities resulting from coronavirus (COVID-19), including employees that need to look after children” can be furloughed.

There is also the option of Flexible Furlough, where you could reduce your hours to part-time, and be furloughed for the rest of the hours you’d normally work.

Read more on our Furlough advice page

What if I’m expected to continue working at my normal workplace?

If you are continuing to work at your normal workplace, it may help to ask your employer to agree and confirm shifts and rotas well in advance, so that you can plan ahead for childcare and other caring responsibilities.

Your employer may also agree to flexi-hours of working which could allow you to make up time off that you have taken to meet your caring responsibilities by working at another time.

Do I have to use other forms of leave to cover my childcare responsibilities?

Your employer should not force you to use your annual leave or take unpaid leave in order to manage unexpected caring responsibilities.

You may also be entitled to unpaid dependants’ or emergency leave as well as parental leave, but it would not really be appropriate to expect you to use these to deal with caring responsibilities during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic where difficulties have arisen due to the government restrictions.

Even if such leave is paid by the employer, it should be reserved for its proper purpose.

The government describes parental leave as time for parents to look after their child’s welfare, e.g. to:

  • spend more time with their children
  • look at new schools
  • settle children into new childcare arrangements
  • spend more time with family, such as visiting grandparents.

This certainly suggests very different circumstances than the unexpected caring responsibilities under the pandemic.

Dependants’ leave is for time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant, whereas the pandemic situation is now ongoing and long-term.

What should I do if I can’t work from home and safely fulfil my caring responsibilities and I’m not being furloughed?

Good practice would be for employers to provide special leave, ideally at full pay in order to deal with unplanned caring responsibilities.

For example, the NHS, has paid COVID-19 special leave available for staff whose child has a suspected case or confirmed case of COVID-19 and there is a government requirement for the employee to self-isolate.

If you have further questions about managing caring responsibilities during this pandemic, contact your UNISON branch.

Our welfare charity, There for You, provides a confidential advice and support service for members.

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