An overwhelming majority of working mums who have requested furlough to homeschool their children have been denied, a shocking new survey has revealed.
The poll, published this week by the TUC, has found that 71 per cent of mums who asked their employer to be furloughed amid school closures were turned down, with 90 per cent reporting their stress and anxiety levels had skyrocketed during lockdown.
Although the government has made it clear – and HMRC earlier this month confirmed in updated guidance – that the furlough scheme may be used to help parents who are affected by school closures, and that parents have the right to request it, far too many employers are refusing to use the scheme for mums and dads with childcare responsibilities.
In the survey of 50,000 working mums, 78 per cent reported that their employer had not offered them furlough, with just under half – about 2 in 5 mums – saying they were not even aware that that the furlough scheme was available to parents affected by school or nursery closures.
‘I can’t sustain this’
The TUC heard from a number of mums who explained the impossible situation they’ve found themselves in after their employer had refused to furlough them.
“I’ve got three children under 10 and I’m working full-time from home,” explained Ciara*. “My husband works all hours, so he can’t help with the children. They need constant encouragement and support with home schooling – and my toddler wants everyone to play.”
Ciara noted that when she technically finishes work at 5pm, she then has to start dinner, and get the kids ready for bath and bedtime. After putting them to sleep and cleaning up, she resumes work from 8pm and typically doesn’t finish until 1am. She then has to be up from 5.30am for her youngest child.
“I’m facing weeks, maybe longer of this,” she said. “I can’t sustain this.”
Meanwhile, Debbie*, who works full-time in the private sector and who has two children, said she was denied her request to be furloughed when she asked.
“My boss told me to make other arrangements,” she noted. “My only options have been to use annual leave or take unpaid leave, both of which I don’t want to and can’t afford to do. I have a year’s worth of school holidays still to cover with my annual leave. I cannot understand what the issue is as to why furlough isn’t being offered.”
Zara, who works 32 hours in the private sector and has two children under the age of 5, also reported that her employer flat-out refused to furlough her when she asked.
“I’m caring for my toddler full-time, home-schooling my 4-year-old, on top of a 32-hour working week with no support from my husband as he can’t work from home,” she explained. “I requested furlough and it was refused. I was told to take unpaid leave which I can’t afford. But I work for a global multi-billion-pound business. It’s insane.”
Right to furlough call
Both the TUC and Unite has raised serious concerns that working mums who have been refused furlough have been forced to reduce their working hours, use up their paid holidays, take unpaid leave or leave their jobs altogether, placing them under immense financial strain.
The survey found that one in four mums were using annual leave to cope with childcare responsibilities, with one in five reducing their working hours and a further 7 per cent taking unpaid leave, leaving them with no income at all.
Unite has backed the TUC’s calls for the government to introduce a temporary right to furlough for those who cannot work because of coronavirus restrictions such as school closures and the clinically extremely vulnerable who are required to shield.
The TUC has urged the government to introduce the right immediately and to use a public advertising campaign so that working parents and clinically vulnerable people understand their rights to furlough.
Employers should explore with their staff different arrangements that can be made for those with childcare responsibilities, such as offering additional paid leave, flexibilities to their working schedule, or alternative work, but when such arrangements can’t be made parents should have the absolute right to be furloughed.
In addition to a temporary right to be furloughed, working mums and dads should also be given extra permanent rights to help families balance paid work and childcare now and in the post-pandemic future.
This should include, the TUC has said, ten days paid carers’ leave from day one in the job for all parents as well as a right to flexible work for all parents, which can take many forms such as working from home, job-sharing, compressed hours or term-time working.
“The safety of school staff and children must always come first,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. “But the government’s lack of support for working parents is causing huge financial hardship and stress – and hitting low-paid mums and single parents hardest.
“Just like in the first lockdown, mums are shouldering the majority of childcare. Tens of thousands of mums have told us they are despairing. It’s neither possible nor sustainable for them to work as normal, while looking after their children and supervising schoolwork.
“Making staff take weeks of unpaid leave isn’t the answer,” she added. “Bosses must do the right thing and offer maximum flexibility to mums and dads who can’t work because of childcare. And as a last resort, parents must have a temporary right to be furloughed where their boss will not agree.
“The UK’s parental leave system is one of the worst in Europe. It’s time for the government to give all parents the right to work flexibly, plus at least ten days’ paid carers leave each year.”
‘Government failing women at every turn’
Unite national officer for equalities Siobhan Endean agreed.
“Before and throughout this pandemic, the government has failed working women at every turn,” she said. “Just as they have before the pandemic, women have again taken on the lion’s share of childcare responsibilities in lockdown amid school closures and as a result have taken an enormous hit, both to their finances and their mental health.
“Already women are much more likely to be working longer hours, in insecure jobs, with caring responsibilities at home on top – the closure of schools, with no help from employers through furlough, has compounded all of these problems and placed far too many women in an impossible situation.”
“The government needs to act urgently and provide paid parental leave for parents,” Endean added. “We’re calling for parents who cannot work because of childcare responsibilities to have an absolute right to furlough. At present the mere right to request furlough in practice means the right to be simply refused, with a majority of employers denying such requests from parents, as the TUC survey has shown.”
“Employers must also carry out equality impact assessments and provide a minimum of 10 days paid carers’ leave to ensure they are not unfairly discriminating against women.”
Endean noted that equality impact assessments are absolutely vital in ensuring that working mums are fairly treated in the workplace. Unite has published an equality briefing for reps about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women, and how reps can fight for their women members in the workplace to ensure they get a fair deal.
“Above all, I would urge working mums to join a union,” Endean continued. “Our reps can work to negotiate furlough or other flexible working arrangements with employers to help women cope with the demands of childcare at an extremely stressful time. You don’t have to go it alone.”
By Hajera Blagg