When schools were suddenly shut in England last week after the government faced mounting pressure to take action to stop the spread of Covid-19, millions of parents were abruptly thrust back into juggling home schooling and work.
After calls from Labour and unions, the government has today (January 11) clarified that parents of school age children who are struggling to work because they must look after their kids can ask their employers to be furloughed.
“Families out there who right now, they have children, perhaps today is the first day of home schooling, or certainly this week,” prime minister Boris Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton said.
“If they feel that they need to ask employers to be furloughed so that they can home school – that is there right now, they can ask for that and (it) should be taken seriously.”
Last week, HMRC updated its furlough guidance to clarify that the furlough scheme, where the government pays 80 per cent of the wages of furloughed staff, can indeed be used to help parents who cannot work because of childcare responsibilities amid school closures.
The school closures are expected to last until at least mid-February if not longer.
The latest statement from No. 10 Downing Street, reported in the Huffington Post, comes after Labour leader Keir Starmer earlier said that single parents who cannot work from home and have no partner to rely on should be given an immediate right to request flexible paid furlough leave from their employer.
Last week, the TUC also called on employers to ‘do the right thing’ and furlough parents who cannot work because they must look after their children.
“With many schools closed, many families will be frantically trying to find a way to balance their work and childcare commitments,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said.
“Without further action, many will have no choice but to cut their hours or take unpaid leave from work. This will lead to further hardship and will hit mums and single parents hardest.
“Employers must do the right thing and furlough mums and dads who can’t work because of childcare responsibilities.”
One employer – hotel chain Travelodge – was recently forced into doing the right thing after the Mirror reported how a housekeeper employed by the company, a single mum, was faced with the prospect of being left without pay after her daughter’s primary school shut.
The housekeeper begged to be furloughed, but was told by line managers that she was ineligible for furlough, and that instead she could only be placed on unpaid dependent leave. If she did not return to work, she would be marked ‘absent without pay’.
“They’ve put a gun to my head – it’s either starve or resign. I can’t just wait with no wages for however long it is until the school reopens,” she told the Mirror.
But Travelodge bosses later backtracked, noting in a statement, “We are concerned to learn about the issues raised as they do not reflect our approach.
“We actively encourage flexible working in our hotels, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been utilising the government’s job retention scheme, and the flexible furlough programme to support our 10,000 team members and to protect jobs.”
Unite national officer Dave Turnbull condemned Travelodge’s initial stance and said far too many employers are failing to do the right thing.
“There is no valid reason for crisis-hit employers not to use the jobs retention scheme,” Turnbull said. “The government must make it absolutely clear to them that the furlough scheme is there to save jobs and this pandemic is not an excuse to dump workers on the dole.
“It is shameful that many big name businesses are refusing to use the scheme,” he added. “The misery and fear that they are causing workers and their families is horrific. Employers dismissing workers when they know that there is a scheme to secure an income for them until April are heartless beyond measure.
“My message to workers is join a union. If this crisis tells you anything, it is that only your union can defend you from bad bosses and keep you safe at work.”
By Hajera Blagg