Juggling childcare and work can be difficult for parents at the best of times. But the coronavirus pandemic turned the notion of working parents on its head. Parents were no longer just expected to care for their child, but to become their proxy teacher as well - often while holding down a job themselves.
Lockdowns and social restrictions created a new issue for parents. Those who could work from home had to split their time between work, schooling and childcare. Key workers and those whose job didn’t allow them to work from home faced looking after their children when schools were shut and social restrictions in place.
Mothers have been disproportionately affected, with childcare responsibilities more often falling to women. The Women's Budget Group (WBG) and the Fawcett Society found that 58% of mothers said "mostly me" when asked who is responsible for childcare, compared with 23% of fathers. And, the research found that twice as many mothers (15%) reported having to take time off work with no pay due to school closures or a self-isolating/sick child compared with fathers (8%).
Furlough has been a lifeline for many. The government made the job support programme available in April 2020 to parents who could not work due to Covid-19 restrictions on schools and childcare. However, despite parents’ right to request furlough during lockdowns, employers do not have to accept the request. Indeed, research by the TUC found that 7 in 10 requests for furlough have been turned down by working mums. The TUC study also suggests there is an awareness issue: 40% of mums stated that they are unaware they are eligible for furlough.
Both the TUC and the Labour Party campaigned to turn the current request system into a legal and enforceable right to be furloughed. However, it would be legally complicated for the government to intervene in employer-employee contracts. Ultimately, furloughing parents for childcare reasons is left to the discretion of the employer; at present, parents have no right to any form of paid leave other than existing annual leave entitlements. This has forced some working parents to use their holidays to care for their children, or take unpaid parental leave. Parents are legally entitled to 4 weeks unpaid leave per year per child.
Unguaranteed access to furlough has forced parents to make difficult decisions in this balancing act between work and parenting - sometimes leading to reduced income and financial difficulty. The TUC’s research found that nearly one in five (18 per cent) of mums had been forced to reduce their working hours and around one in 14 (seven per cent) are taking unpaid leave from work and receiving no income.
Citizens Advice Gateshead gave advice to one client, ‘Emma’, who found herself in such difficulty. Read about her case here. Her story highlights how complicated it can be to navigate work and childcare commitments during the pandemic. Citizens Advice Gateshead has helped around 300 clients in the area with furlough issues since the scheme began a year ago, and can help working parents by advising them on their employment and statutory rights.