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Establish a legal right to furlough for working parents: TUC

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady Andrew Matthews/PA Archive/PA Images

Working parents with caring responsibilities should have a temporary legal right to access the furlough scheme, the TUC has stated, in the wake of a major study that gauged the impact of Covid restrictions.

The study found that the Covid-19 pandemic had hit working-class women the hardest, with 78% of working mothers not being able to gain furlough funding. The decision to move to remote learning for primary- and secondary-aged children this month affected more than a third of working households. While it was right to close schools, said the authors, the burden for juggling work and care was falling predominantly on mothers, as it did in the first lockdown.

Last week, HM Revenue & Customs updated its furlough guidance to confirm that the scheme could be used where employees were unable to work because they were caring for children while schools were closed.

However, drawing on 50,000 responses, the TUC analysis found:

  • 7 in 10 requests for furlough were being turned down for working mums
  • Nine out of 10 mums sid their mental health had been negatively impacted experiencing levels of stress and anxiety
  • One-quarter of mums were worried they would lose their jobs, either through being singled out for redundancy, sacked or denied hours

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the government’s lack of support for working parents was causing huge financial hardship and stress – and hitting low-paid mothers and single parents hardest.

“Tens of thousands of mums have told us they are despairing,” she said. “It’s neither possible nor sustainable for them to work as normal, while looking after their children and supervising schoolwork.”

The report included contributions from working mothers – one, a private sector worker, wrote: “I asked for furlough and they [employer] told me to try make other arrangements. My only options have been 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 school holidays still to cover with my annual leave. I cannot understand what the issue is as to why furlough isn’t being offered.”

Another, also in the private sector, stated: “I’m caring for a two year old full time and now my four year old [is] being home schooled on top of a 32 hour working week and no support from my husband as he can’t work from home. I requested furlough and it was refused. [My manager] feared opening the floodgates, feared the wider business will think our team can manage without [me] and be subject to headcount reduction. Told to take unpaid leave which I can’t afford. I work for a global multi-billion pound business. It’s insane. Many others are in a similar situation.”

Just 7% of responses came from men – suggesting the problem was affecting women mostly.

The survey found that 78% of working mothers had not been offered furlough and almost half (48%) were worried about being treated negatively by their employers because of their childcare responsibilities.

It was also shown that two in five mothers were unaware the scheme was available to parents affected by school or nursery closures.

A Treasury spokesperson said: “It’s been clear since the first lockdown that employers can furlough eligible employees who are required to shield, or those with childcare responsibilities, including because of school closures.”

The TUC recommended employers could offer additional paid leave, or altered workloads and work times, “but as a last resort workers should have the right to be furloughed.” A right to furlough was the best option given that the UK did not have a proper system of paid parental leave or better flexible work rights, it said.

It urged the government to write to all employers telling them to use the furlough scheme to support parents, carers and those required to shield. Ministers should emphasise that “workers taking up or requesting this type of furlough, who are disproportionately women and disabled people, must not be discriminated against”.

A public advertising campaign telling parents, carers, and those required to shield about their eligibility to use the scheme was also required.

Because furlough was for private sector employees only, the report noted, public sector employers urgently needed to explore solutions such as changes to working hours, offering additional paid leave and parental leave.

The UK could take heed of how other countries had taken emergency steps to support parents, the study said. In Germany, parents had been given an additional 10 days leave to support children, and single parents an additional 20 days. In March, Italy approved 15 days’ paid parental leave for both parents, while schools were closed.

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