Under the UK government’s furlough scheme, parents can be placed on furlough if they have caring responsibilities for a child who is at home as a result of school closures. However, a parent’s request for furlough depends upon the agreement of their employer, which is not always forthcoming. In this blog, Dr Isabel Tavora and Professor Jill Rubery, from the Work and Equalities Institute, examine the flaws in the current scheme, and provide best practice recommendations based on their research into the COVID-19 special parental leave schemes of other European countries.

A new survey by the TUC following the start of the third lockdown has found that, despite the government allowing employers to furlough workers on the grounds of childcare, seven out of ten mothers who responded to the poll have had their requests for furlough turned down and a quarter fear they may lose their jobs . Moreover, two out of five mothers were unaware that they could ask to be furloughed due to childcare responsibilities. These findings reveal the weaknesses in the support provided by the UK government for individuals and families during the crisis. The key problem is the reliance on the good will of the employer not only to agree to the furloughed leave but also to retain parents in their jobs when they are juggling work with home schooling or childcare. The high rate of refusals of furlough requests suggests that parents who fear for their jobs may have good grounds for concern, as employer good will appears to be in short supply.

Further problems are found within the government’s own support policies, including the £500 allowance available – in principle – to those having difficulty self-isolating for 14 days. Here, parents who have responsibility for children self-isolating are not eligible to apply, despite it not being legal to leave children alone. This suggests that the government expects parents to be able to juggle work and home-based childcare, or to survive without their wage income.

The TUC is now calling for a temporary right to be furloughed if parents cannot work from home and combine it with childcare or home schooling.  This would bring us more in line with practice in the majority of EU member states, as our research into support policies during the first COVID-19 wave across Europe reveals.

Comparing the UK approach with other countries

The UK approach contrasts with how the majority of European countries protected parents during the first COVID-19 wave. Within the EU, 16 out of 27 member states provided paid parental leave as a right. A further three provided leave subject to employer support, as in the UK’s furlough scheme when used as a form of parental leave. One country (Spain) only provided unpaid leave. There were still gaps in support and low income protection but the majority of these European countries nevertheless recognised that school closures caused problems for working parents, and required employers – for the most part – to allow leaves.

In nine cases (Austria, Cyprus, Greece, France, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden) the leave was paid at least at the same level as the job retention schemes that all EU countries provided. This is important because it signals that care work is valued, and it recognises the importance of both parents’ wages for supporting the family. It also acknowledges the right of both women and men to an independent income. Conversely, lower-paid or unpaid leave signals an undervaluing of care, and risks making those who provide care (most likely women) economically dependent on their partners. Single parents, who are predominantly women, are particularly vulnerable because their families rely solely on their earnings. Some countries, such as Belgium and Cyprus, addressed this problem by providing higher levels of parental leave pay for lone parent families.

Thus, the design of leave schemes matters. The danger of schemes where parental leave requires employer permission is that, if refused, one of the parents may feel obliged to resign or use up holiday entitlement, thereby storing up problems for childcare in school holidays. Women in couple households may feel pressure to be the one to quit their jobs because they tend to have the main responsibility for childcare and normally earn less than their male partner. In the case of Bulgaria, the unequal division of care work was further reinforced by the COVID-19 parental leave as the employer was only obliged to allow mothers to take leave not fathers, except if they were single parents.

The design of leave schemes can also have a positive influence on fathers’ involvement in childcare. Good examples here are provided by Belgium and Italy, where parents were encouraged to share special COVID-19 parental leaves. In Belgium, parental leave could only be taken part-time, enabling each employee to reduce working time up to 50%, and so ensuring full-time care only if both parents took leave. In Italy each parent was entitled to 15 days, with both parents expected to alternate so that care could be provided for a total of 30 days.

A significant number of countries, including Austria, Bulgaria, France, Malta, Portugal and Romania, only allowed parental leave for employees in jobs that could not be done from home. This condition fails to appreciate the extent of care required when young children are at home due to school or nursery closures and that this may prevent carers from doing the work required in their jobs. Parents in these circumstances are again dependent on their employer’s understanding to be able to remain in their jobs. If an employer’s support is not forthcoming, parents may be fired, feel obliged to resign or take unpaid leave, if this is available.

Support for parents after the first wave

Our research was undertaken in relation to policies introduced in the first wave of COVID-19, up to the end of June 2020. Since then, the level and nature of restrictions has varied between countries throughout the continuing waves of the crisis, and so working parents have continued to experience childcare problems. This is not only due to partial or full school closures but also due to the need to support children who fall ill or are required to self-isolate.

Some good practice examples can still be found. For example, in Lithuania the COVID-19 parental leave can be used by one of the parents of a child that needs to self-isolate. In other countries, a separate scheme is used in these circumstances and payment is equivalent to 100% net earnings in Portugal, 80% in Latvia, and 70% in France. Here too, the UK government should follow the example of our European neighbours. There is an urgent need to extend furlough in the UK as a right for those who need to care for children, not only because of school closures and disruptions, but also to support those caring for self-isolating children. Parents of very young children should be entitled to paid parental leave even if their job can be done from home. Measures to encourage sharing of care between partners would further help reduce the risks of reversing progress towards gender equality that the COVID-19 crisis is creating.

 

Dr Isabel Tavora and Professor Jill Rubery discuss this research in more detail in ‘The COVID-19 crisis and gender equality: risks and opportunities’ in Social policy in the European Union: state of play 2020.

They are also speaking on the topic at an OSEETUI and AK EUROPA webinar on gender equality and in-work poverty on 22 January 2021 (see webinar recording here).

 

Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.

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