Whether you support the recent strike action by teachers or not, there is no denying that they have led to difficulty for businesses whose employees have needed time off work to look after their children. At the moment, it is not known if further teaching strikes are planned, meaning that there could be unprecedented staff absence if that is the case.
Most employers are likely to be understanding given that the reason for time off is out of the employee’s control. However, it does raise the question of an employer’s obligations and rights in these circumstances.
Put simply, employees have a statutory right to a reasonable amount of time off to care for dependents in unplanned or emergency situations, such as where a childminder falls ill or schools close. This is known as “dependents leave” and employees are not entitled to be paid for this time off.
As any issue caused by the employee having to take time off in these circumstances is likely to be short term, it wouldn’t be advisable to consider disciplinary or absence management action against them or terminate their employment (as some employers might be tempted to consider if the employee has only been with the business a short time).
Aside from the damage this would no doubt do to the employment relationship, employees may also be able to bring legal claims against the business. Such claims may consist of indirect sex discrimination (as it’s generally accepted that women carry out most of the childcare responsibilities in comparison to men) or automatic unfair dismissal and/or detriment claims because the employee has asserted a statutory right.
Given that the teaching strikes are currently appearing to be ad hoc days on a short term basis, employers should adopt a flexible and reasonable approach to time off work. It may be possible for employees to work from home, or to make up time missed. Employers could also agree for annual leave to be taken. Where none of these options are suitable, the employee should be allowed to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work during the teaching strikes without risk of any detriment or dismissal.
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