Labour and TUC demand new support for working parents amid school closures

Sienna Rodgers
© lonndubh/Shutterstock.com

The Labour Party and TUC are drawing attention to the impact of school reopening delays on the finances of working parents – and encouraging Rishi Sunak to announce further support for those affected by closures.

Secondary schools in England will see staggered returns, while the reopening of primary schools has been delayed in Tier 4 areas including London and places in Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.

In a letter to the Chancellor today, Labour’s Anneliese Dodds has highlighted how the existing coronavirus furlough scheme can be used to help those with childcare responsibilities via further promotion and clarification.

“Any situation where children cannot go to school means parents facing difficult choices,” Dodds said. “The Chancellor needs to ensure that parents… are not in danger of losing their job because of caring responsibilities caused by the pandemic.”

The Shadow Chancellor has urgently demanded that Sunak improve the promotion of the job retention scheme to employers, schools and employees, and ensure better communication of critical workers list to schools.

She has called for a change in the rules for furlough to include parents who cannot work from home but are employed by organisations fully-funded by public grants, and for a strategy to help job-seeking parents find work.

The letter from Dodds to Sunak also notes the gendered impact of school closures on parents, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies finding that mothers were more likely to have quit or lost their job since the start of the pandemic.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has directly urged employers to offer furlough to parents affected by school closures, emphasising that the job retention scheme is available from a minimum of seven days and can be part-time.

The union body has expressed concern that not all bosses are aware of caring responsibilities being a valid reason for furlough, and this knowledge gap could lead to parents taking unpaid time off work – or even having to quit their jobs.

It has also demanded help for self-employed working parents, who the TUC say should have “automatic access” to the self-employed income support scheme (SEISS) and benefit from broader improvements to the Covid scheme.

“With many schools closed, many families will be frantically trying to find a way to balance their work and childcare commitments,” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said, stressing that mothers and single parents will be hit hardest.

“Employers must do the right thing and furlough mums and dads who can’t work because of childcare responsibilities. And the government should give all parents the right to work flexibly plus ten days’ paid parental leave each year.”

To improve the situation for working parents more generally, the TUC supports a day one right to ten days’ paid parental leave – as parents currently have no statutory right to paid parental leave – and a day one right to flexible work.

Below is the full text of Anneliese Dodds’ letter to Rishi Sunak.

Dear Chancellor of the Exchequer,

I am writing to you regarding the impact that delaying the re-opening of schools will have on parental employment. While I appreciate that the reopening of schools may need to be delayed for public health reasons, I am concerned about the knock-on impact that school closures, especially primary school closures, will have on the employment of parents.

School and childcare closures mean that children are at home and require care. Since the initial lockdown in March 2020 research studies have found that school closures affected parents’ employment and gender equality. The ONS found that women spent more time doing unpaid work such as childcare and less time on paid work than men. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mothers were more likely to have quit or lost their job since the start of the pandemic.

We risk a repeat of this situation as a result of the latest round of school closures, setting back parental employment and gender equality even further.

This is not inevitable, and there are several actions you can take that limit the impact that the delay in schools re-opening will have on parental employment. While the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme can be used by employers to keep parents in employment if they are unable to work from home but have additional childcare responsibilities, this is not currently being communicated to employers, parents and schools sufficiently. There are also issues with the design and eligibility rules of the CJRS that reduce its effectiveness in preserving parental employment.

To rectify this situation, I am calling on you to:

  • Immediately update employee-facing guidance to make clear that employees can be furloughed because of childcare responsibilities. This is currently only set out in the guidance to employers but not the guidance to employees.
  • Promote the coronavirus job retention scheme to parents and employers, making it clear that childcare responsibilities resulting from coronavirus confer eligibility for furlough.
  • Specifically promote the flexible element within the CJRS, so parents and employers know they can be furloughed for part of their working hours.
  • Step-up communication of the critical workers list so that schools, individuals and their employers are clear about which children can and should remain in school. Research has found that some groups, such as food retail workers, were not recognised by schools as critical.
  • Urgently change the rules governing the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme so that organisations fully funded via public grants can use the scheme for parents if needed. Currently only organisations not fully funded by public grants can access the scheme.
    Assess whether the current employer contribution within the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, covering National Insurance and pension contributions, are acting as a disincentive for employers to furlough parents.
    As soon as possible, bring forward a strategy setting out how parents who have sadly lost their jobs will be supported to re-enter work, including how the recently announced Restart scheme will be tailored to the particular needs of job seekers who are parents.
    The above actions would mitigate against a further damaging wave of job losses among parents, promote gender equality and ensure that parents are better able to do the right thing, providing care to their children while promoting public health. Labour stands ready to support these changes and I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely

Anneliese Dodds
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

More from LabourList