Parents in the UK face impossible choices between their livelihood and their children’s wellbeing, according to campaigners and business groups who say employers have become less willing to grant furlough requests to help manage the pressures of home schooling.
During the first national lockdown last spring, parents were twice as likely to be furloughed as those without children, according to analysis by the Office for National Statistics, which also found that many of those still working could only manage by catching up in the early hours and late at night. Polling by the TUC found that one in six mothers — mostly those in low-paid jobs — had no choice but to cut their hours.
With England and the rest of the UK now subject to similar lockdown restrictions, the impact this time could be greater, with more parts of the economy open, employers less able to accommodate furlough requests, and many parents already exhausted and under financial strain.
“Our phone lines are completely awash with frantic mothers who are being refused furlough and now have their kids at home,” said Joeli Brearley, chief executive of the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed. A snap poll the charity ran on January 8, just one week into the new school term, drew responses from more than 2,000 women — a fifth of whom had already left or been forced out of their jobs since Christmas as a result of schools switching to remote learning.
They included frontline workers refused places for their children in schools overwhelmed with similar requests, the self-employed, employees who could not attend workplaces and homeworkers who could not face repeating the experience of last spring.
Official guidance makes it clear that caring responsibilities are a valid reason for employers to furlough staff, full time or part time, on 80 per cent of pay under the government’s job retention scheme. The scheme is set to run at least until April after the latest extension from chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Ms Brearley said many more employers than before appeared to be refusing requests for furlough: some companies had made redundancies and were already operating with a skeleton staff, making it hard to spread the workload, while others in a healthier financial position did not want to accept government subsidies, now that the names of recipients would be published.
David D’Souza, membership director at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, an association for HR professionals, said his contacts with HR directors confirmed this trend. Some businesses were doing everything possible, he said, including setting up support clubs for parents and drawing on in-house expertise to help children learn. But many were now more reticent about granting furlough, whether due to financial pressures, operational impacts, or because staff had been off work for so long already.
“Organisations have a duty of care to people, but . . . many of them are fighting for their survival,” he said.
In theory, it should now be easier for parents to turn to furlough for relief. Christine Farquharson, at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, notes that one of the big differences this time around is that the scheme now allows for part-time furlough, whereas before mothers “faced the unappetising choice between leaving their job entirely . . . or trying to carry out both work and childcare”.
But Emily Pritty, head of legal advice at the charity Working Families, said: “So many people say employers have a blanket policy of refusal.”
A few companies did feel able to be more generous, she said. Zurich Insurance is offering parents with childcare difficulties two weeks of paid leave — similar to the government policy in place in Germany. The law firms DWF and Allen & Overy are also offering extra days of carers’ and emergency leave.
But there is no obligation for employers to do this, or to accede to furlough requests. Employees might be able to use their annual leave allowance to gain extra time off, but their only legal right is to unpaid leave, for a short period to look after dependants or, if they have been in their job for more than a year, for a longer spell of parental leave.
This means that school closures will once again be most painful for low income parents.
A poll conducted late last year by the Women’s Budget Group and other charities campaigning for gender equality found that 12 per cent of parents earning below £20,000-a-year, and 13 per cent of those earning between £20,000 and £40,000 per annum, felt at risk of losing their job if schools closed or children had to self-isolate — compared with just 7 per cent of parents on higher incomes.
Low-income families are already more likely to be spending more as a result of the pandemic, while many richer households have saved, according to research published this week by the Resolution Foundation and York university’s Covid Realities research project.
This is in large part because parents had to spend more on food and energy bills when children were at home all day, with many also paying for broadband access, laptops or other materials for study.
“The cost of broadband is a large amount to be paying out monthly when you rely on benefits to survive,” one single father — who had then been unable to afford replacing his daughter’s uniform when school reopened — told the researchers.
Ms Brearley from Pregnant Then Screwed wants ministers to increase the level of child benefit to lessen these pressures. Others suggest that parents should be able to access the grants available to those on low incomes who are forced to self-isolate, if they have to take time off work to be with children.
But more financial support would not address the longer term risk: that school closures will lead to more mothers, in particular, dropping out of the workforce and finding that their jobs no longer exist when they sought to return.
This is a clear risk, for large numbers of low-paid, part time women who cannot do their jobs from home, but also for higher paid home workers who cannot face a constant juggling act.
“It was possible for a short period, but now it is overwhelming many people,” said Mr D’Souza.