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Teacher strikes – what working parents/carers and employers need to know

Katie Ash, Head of Employment Law - Banner Jones

The news that teachers from the National Education Union had voted for strike action in England and Wales will have left lots of working parents and carers – and their employers – wondering how they are going to manage if and when local schools close.

While some families may have relatives or friends they can lean on to help with childcare, others may have to take time off work as their only option.

So what options are available to employees, and what do employers need to consider when dealing with requests for holidays, flexible working, or even unpaid leave?

Holiday/Annual Leave
“If an employee has sufficient annual leave available, they might choose to cover the time needed to look after their child via a holiday request,” Katie explains.

“Check any holiday policy for details of what notice is required to book leave but remember that the Working Time Regulations 1998 require employees to give twice the length of notice as the required amount of leave. So, if an employee wants 1 day’s leave, they need to give 2 days’ notice.

“Employers can reject the request, although in many cases it may be a solution that works for all.”

Time off for dependants
Katie says: “Typically speaking, this is unpaid time off (unless an employer has a policy of paying for this leave).

“This leave is designed to deal with emergency situations where childcare falls through unexpectedly.

“Whilst planned strike action may not fall within the remit of this sort of leave, as it isn’t necessarily an unexpected event (though schools might not know until the day who is striking and whether school can remain open), if a parent or carer has childcare provision put in place to cover the strike day, but that falls through at the last minute, that will likely fall within the right to take time off to look after a dependant.”

Parental leave
“This is unpaid time off (unless an employer also has a policy of paying for this leave), and is only available to those with at least a year’s service with their employer,” Katie explains.

“Employees asking for parental leave must give at least 21 days’ notice, and unless an employer agrees otherwise, the leave must be taken in blocks of 1 or 2 weeks. There’s a limit of 4 weeks’ leave per year for this sort of leave (capped at 18 weeks in total).

“An employer can postpone the leave by giving justifiable business reasons and must suggest a new start date beginning within 6 months of the requested date.”

Agreed unpaid leave
Katie says that agreed unpaid leave is a potential solution if the employee doesn’t have enough leave, doesn’t qualify for, or doesn’t want to request dependant or parental leave.

She says: “It is still open to an employer and an employee to agree that the employee can take unpaid leave. An employer can even agree to pay for the leave or ask the employee to make the time up at some other point – similar to how employers may deal with medical appointments.

Working from home
Following Covid-19, many employees are still working from home on a full or hybrid basis, and Katie says that subject to the employee’s home situation and age of their children, the employee and the employer may be able to agree that the employee can work from home on a strike day.

She adds: “If working from home is an option, employers and employees might be able to also discuss adjusting the hours of work accordingly to ensure that the employee can look after their child, whilst also working effectively; something that was regularly the case in many businesses during the pandemic when schools were closed.

“These are all viable options, but what is important is that employees and employers talk about how any strike action might impact an employee, and try to work together to find a solution that supports the employee whilst causing minimal disruption to the employer and their business.”

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