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WE’RE ALL EQUAL, BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS

Originally posted by Cas Carrington of KLC Employment Law

When the Government announced their decision not to re-open schools (not even junior schools) after the Christmas break, I was astounded that no discernable concern was raised at the time by the Government, or in the immediate aftermath by the mainstream press, about the devastating impact that decision would have on many working families. Of course, there are arguments for and against the closing of schools, but whichever camp you fall into, it doesn’t detract from the fact that working families with young children were thrown overnight into panic about childcare arrangements (and some employers too!).

If both parents work, and neither can work from home, what are their options?  At least one parent has to be at home at all times with the child, which means they must rely on their employer having the financial headroom to pay them to stay at home and not work, or be granted paid or unpaid leave (not that helpful for struggling families).

The Government has been clear that employers may furlough an employee who has to stay at home with a child, but to date there is no obligation to do so.  While certain groups are lobbying for furloughing in this situation to be mandatory, I suggest we should consider the employer’s point of view as well.  The employer will still have to pay NI and pension contributions, and may still need the job to be done. While this may not be an insurmountable problem for large organisations, spare a thought for small to medium ones which might have fought to keep their businesses afloat for the past year and just can’t afford any further financial burden, or find a replacement with the necessary skills.

It may be that one or both parents can work from home, which makes matters slightly easier, but young children can’t just be left to their own devices (although that’s quite literally what is happening to many of them).  In theory, parents might be able to fit their work around looking after their child’s daily basic and educational needs, and some are able to undertake some of their work when the child has gone to bed, but this must be exhausting for the employee and, almost inevitably, strain will show on their work, in quality and/or quantity, because, good people will not be putting their work before their child’s welfare.  Responsible employers will hopefully be showing concern for their employees and offering flexibility where they can.  Merely demanding that the same amount of work be done in the same time and at the same time would clearly be unreasonable,  and any disciplinary sanction imposed almost certainly be held unfair.

What has possibly disturbed me the most about this situation, however, is the inequality that still appears to exist between working men and women. Statistically, we know that women are the primary childcarers (the tribunals and courts just take that as read) and between most working parents it’s usually the woman who is most likely to undertake part-time work.  Society understands that is the case, but under these extraordinary circumstances, I’m amazed to discover that in the main it’s ‘mum’ who is taking on the role of home schooling even where both parents are in full-time work.

We’ve seen huge changes in equality for the better during recent and not so recent years, and so I’m truly surprised to discover that society still considers men’s jobs to be more important than women’s. Perhaps I’m being naïve, and it’s merely because women want to take on part-time work to balance childcare? But, just because a woman’s job is part-time does not make it any less important than a man’s full-time job. Or perhaps it does, and I am being naive, and if I am, I think it’s a sad day for anyone who wants to see true equality of the sexes.