The balance between work and family life has never been easy. In recent years the government has sought to try to make laws more “family friendly’. Whilst affording broader rights for employees, these changes to the law have brought confusion for employers about their obligations.

It is important that employers understand employment law in this area and strike a balance between complying with their obligations and protecting their commercial interests when responding to and dealing with employees’ requests regarding family and child care.

It is important for employers to remember that almost all employees have a statutory right to take paid time off work to have a baby, take paternity leave or adoption leave or to ask for flexible working hours to care for a child.

In addition, almost all employees have a right to take time off work (although not necessarily with pay) to care for their children. Employees who have worked for their employer for one year and have one qualifying child are entitled to take 18 weeks’ unpaid parental leave before their child’s 18th birthday. Further, employees with two qualifying children are entitled to a total of 36 weeks’ unpaid parental leave.

In most cases, parental leave can only be taken in blocks of one week or a whole number of weeks and employees are not usually permitted to take more than four weeks’ parental leave per year in relation to each child.

Special rules apply where an employee’s child is disabled, which for these purposes means a child who is eligible for disability living allowance, armed forces independence allowance or personal independence payment. Employees are entitled to take parental leave in respect of that child in blocks of less than one week. However, there is still a limit of 4 weeks per year and a total of 18 weeks for each child.

There are a number of statutory offences in relation to parental leave that, if committed by an employer, would entitle the employee to bring a complaint to an employment tribunal. These include:

  • Subjecting the employee to a detriment.
  • Dismissing the employee.
  • Unreasonably postponing a requested period of parental leave.
  • Preventing or attempting to prevent the taking of parental leave.

Almost all employees have the right to take time off work (although not necessarily with pay) to attend to unexpected problems with dependants; for example where child-minding arrangements break down.

Further, employees who have worked for their employer continuously for at least 26 weeks have the right to make a request for flexible working. Such requests can be made by employees for any reason and must be made in writing. However, only one request can be made in any 12 month period. An employer does not legally have to agree to this and can justify the rejection of a request for flexible working if there are legitimate business grounds to do so.

If an employee considers his/her employer has breached legislation and/or he/she is being treated unfairly in respect of his/her statutory rights, he/she may seek compensation for breaches of statutory law, and/or resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal.

Other potential claims could also include sex discrimination.  For example, employees can make a claim if they are a man and their request to work part-time to look after their children is refused when a request by a female employer would be accepted. Female employees and workers may also be able to make a claim on the basis that an employer refusing to allow her to work flexibly is sex discrimination and also indirect sex discrimination.  This is simply because more women than men have child-care responsibilities.

Employers remain at risk of employment tribunal cases and claims for compensation if they fail to grasp employee rights in relation to family life and childcare.

If you require employment advice on how to respond to employees’ requests for time off, or indeed any other employment law matter, please don’t hesitate to contact one of our employment solicitors on 0845 287 0939 or email us.