Taking care in business

Running a family home or caring for a sick relative while working full-time is hardly a walk in the park. So it’s worth knowing how to support employees while they’re supporting others

Taking care in business

Trying to balance being a carer with a full-time job is far from easy. Whether taking care of an elderly family member or raising young children, there are all manner of unseen incidents that can crop up and drag a person away from their desk. Fortunately there are legal provisions that offer a framework to deal with these unforeseen circumstances. 

“Time off for dependents essentially allows employees to take a reasonable amount of time off for unexpected emergencies,” comments John Palmer, senior guidance managing editor at employment relations and HR experts the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). If an employee finds out their child’s school has closed or that a dependent relative has had an accident, the legislation entitles them to take time to resolve the situation. He explains: “It might be that they need to sort out childcare, get their parents or take annual leave. But it’s about getting the time off to sort that situation out.”

It’s worth emphasising that this differs radically from parental leave. “Parental leave usually involves a certain degree of planning and accommodation between an employer and an employee,” says Palmer. In contrast, time off for dependents is spur-of-the-moment leave to help deal with unforeseen circumstances that are entirely out of an employee’s control.

Another manner in which time off for dependents differs from parental leave is that it doesn’t require employers to pay wages up to certain thresholds. “Under the statutory right, there is no obligation to pay someone for that time off,” comments Palmer. “The only time there would be payment for that is where there’s any sort of contractual agreement.” Obviously, if an organisation has any special leave policies that offer a wage in relevant circumstances – bereavement, for example, comes under the heading of time off for dependents – then it will be required to pay as per the terms of the contract.

Obviously, it is against the law for a company to deny an employee time off to take care of an unexpected situation involving a dependent or family member. However, if they feel that an employee is using the legislation to a disproportionate degree, they are entitled to address the situation. “We’d suggest if it’s becoming an issue the employer and employee have an informal chat,” says Palmer. “You can say, ‘this situation is occurring quite a lot – are there other options so we can perhaps better forecast and accommodate your needs?’” 

As already mentioned, cases involving long-term predictable issues – such as regular doctors appointments or ongoing childcare problems – are not covered by the time off for dependents legislation. This means that if an employee is regularly having to make use of the regulation – for example, if regular bouts of illness in a family member turn out to be caused by something more severe – they might require a change in working habits.

All employees are entitled by law to request a flexible working pattern. A major misconception about this piece of legislation, however, is that any request made for flexible working either has to be agreed upon or rejected out of hand. “This sort of legislation is what’s known as the ‘right to request’,” explains Palmer. “The employer doesn’t have the duty to accept that; they have the duty to give it serious consideration.” Instead, it’s intended to be an open process where both parties can find a mutually beneficial solution, and if a parent or carer is having longer term issues it can help an organisation find a more suitable way of supporting them.

Assisting employees with dependents doesn’t require much from an employer but it can make the world of difference to someone who needs a little extra help. For this reason, taking care of your obligations can make a huge difference to the people who work for you. 

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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