Emergency family leave

By Sue Tumelty, founder and executive director of The HR Dept


How employers can manage last-minute family emergencies within their team

In what can seem like a continued stream of doom and gloom, the recent Budget at least had a bit of good news for working parents – it’s a boost whether you employ them or you are one yourself.

Essentially, if you or they have a child aged nine months to school age, you’ll soon get between 15 and 30 hours a week of Government-funded childcare. Terms, as they say, apply.

While this does help parents juggle work/life balance, there are still plenty of occasions when a last-minute emergency will give no choice but for them to simply leave work and be with their child(ren) or other dependants.

All kinds of reasons for emergency leave

From your employee’s perspective, there could be several reasons to request unexpected time-off. Maybe their child is unwell; perhaps the usual arrangements have fallen through or a school trip arrival is suddenly early or late. Don’t forget also those who may not have young kids (or kids at all) but other family members or other people who regularly rely on them for help and support.

Know the law – part 1

So how can you navigate what can be tricky terrain for a business owner, helping manage unexpected staff absences while ensuring its business as usual?

First, it’s imperative to know the law.

All employees are entitled to time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant.This is known as dependants leave, time off for dependants or emergency family leave.A dependant might be a child but it could also be a partner, parent or anyone else dependant on the employee for care.Time off should be “reasonable” but it’s impossible to stipulate exact days and hours, it really depends on the situation. Note, though, that it does not cover the whole period of a child’s illness, like chickenpox for example. The time is to put other arrangements in place.The time off is unpaid.

Emergency leave versus parental leave

It’s also important you understand the difference between emergency leave and parental leave. For example, if an employee already knew about a child’s hospital / doctor’s appointment, this isn’t an emergency – and the onus would have been on the employee to book time off.

Parental leave is also unpaid. There are limits set on how it is taken throughout an employee’s career – spanning across different employers (18 weeks in total, with no more than four weeks taken in a year). They must have been with you for at least a year to qualify, take in one-week blocks and give 21 days’ notice. There are special arrangements for disabled children.

But back to emergency leave…

Know the law – part 2

Any time off needs to be deemed “necessary” and “reasonable”.

Where there are two parents who are actively care-givers (even if they’re divorced) it’s reasonable to consider that more than one person can share the care. Do bear in mind that all too often it’s assumed that the mother will (or should) shoulder the responsibility – this should not be a given.

Ultimately, any disruption or inconvenience to business isn’t a factor for you to decline emergency leave – certainly not from a legal standpoint.

Planning ahead is critical

Think ahead on the best possible contingency plan(s). This might be ensuring colleagues are sufficiently trained up to step into a role, or building up a trusted bank of freelancers. You may have that incredible former employee who’s retired but might enjoy being called upon “now and then”.

Think, too, about how an employee would feel if they were a key part of a presentation or work event, desperate to make their contribution, but unable to do so. Could the event be rearranged, or at least your employee be reassured that you understand the disruption could not be helped?

Help them to help you. Teachers strikes are planned in advance so are not deemed an emergency in terms of dependants leave. Talk to your staff about contingency plans such as working from home that day or taking holiday.

A step in the right direction

Back to the Budget and it is positive for businesses and employees that there is more support for working parents coming. Understanding how this childcare funding interacts with policies like parental and emergency leave will help you get the most out of your working-parent workforce.

Need help? Experts are here to offer expert support and advice – whether that is through some pay-as-you-go support for a specific project or on a permanent, outsourced basis.

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