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  • Over 50,000 working mums respond to new TUC survey on challenges of managing work and childcare during lockdown
  • Working mums report huge levels of anxiety and stress following school closures
  • TUC calls for an emergency temporary right to furlough for working parents – and for government to promote this new right to mums and dads

Nearly three-quarters (71%) of working mums who have applied for furlough following the latest school closures have had their requests turned down, according to a new TUC survey carried out in the past week and published today (Thursday).

The job retention scheme currently allows bosses to furlough parents who can’t work due to a lack of childcare.

But the TUC says many mums are missing out on this financial lifeline as the scheme is not promoted to parents.

The union body is also concerned some employers are refusing to furlough those who request it, leaving mums in an impossible situation where they are forced to reduce their hours at work, take unpaid leave and annual leave to cope, or leave their job altogether.

TUC survey

Last week, the TUC and campaigner Mother Pukka launched a call for evidence for working mums to share their experiences of how they are managing their work and childcare commitments during lockdown.

More than 50,000 mums got in touch – an unprecedented response to a survey of this kind.

Of those working mums who contacted the TUC:

  • Nearly three-quarters (71%) who asked for furlough had their requests refused.
  • Most (78%) hadn’t been offered furlough by their employers.
  • And 2 in 5 (40%) of all mums who replied were unaware that the furlough scheme was available to parents affected by school or nursery closures.

Impact on working mums

Working mums told the TUC they were struggling with the strain of being expected to carry out their jobs as normal, while balancing childcare and home-schooling. They were also concerned about being treated badly by their employers as a result:

  • Nearly all (90%) of those who replied said that their anxiety and stress levels had increased during this latest lockdown.
  • And almost half (48%) were worried about being treated negatively by their employers because of their childcare responsibilities.

Financial strain

Around half (44%) of mums told the TUC they were worried about the impact having to take time off work would have on their household finances.

A quarter (25%) of mums were using annual leave to manage their childcare – but nearly 1 in 5 (18%) had been forced to reduce their working hours and around 1 in 14 (7%) were taking unpaid leave from work and receiving no income.

An emergency right to furlough

The TUC says that the UK’s inadequate system of parental leave and woefully low level of sick pay is leaving parents in impossible situations, where they risk losing their job or facing a catastrophic loss of income. 

To support these workers, the TUC is calling on ministers to introduce a temporary right to furlough for groups who cannot work because of coronavirus restrictions – both parents and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable and required to shield. And ministers should clarify that furlough can be used by both private and public sector employers for these purposes.

The union body says employers should first explore with parents and those shielding whether other measures – such as offering additional paid leave, changes to working hours or other flexibilities like working from home, and offering alternative work – could help the worker balance their responsibilities, but that as a last resort, workers should have the right to be furloughed.

Ministers should encourage employers to use the furlough scheme for parents and those shielding where other arrangements cannot be made, and run a major advertising campaign so that parents and shielders understand that they can use furlough.

The TUC says this situation results from the UK’s failure to help families balance paid work and childcare. Alongside a temporary right to furlough, it is calling on the government to introduce:

  • Ten days' paid carers leave, from day one in a job, for all parents. Currently parents have no statutory right to paid leave to look after their children.
  • A right to flexible work for all parents. Flexible working can take lots of different forms, including having predictable or set hours, working from home, job-sharing, compressed hours and term-time working. 
  • An increase in sick pay to at least the level of the real Living Wage, for everyone in work, to ensure workers can afford to self-isolate if they need to.
  • Newly self-employed parents to have access the self-employment income support scheme (SEISS).

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The safety of school staff and children must always come first. But the government’s lack of support for working parents is causing huge financial hardship and stress – and hitting low-paid mums and single parents hardest.

“Just like in the first lockdown, mums are shouldering the majority of childcare. Tens of thousands of mums have told us they are despairing. It’s neither possible nor sustainable for them to work as normal, while looking after their children and supervising schoolwork.

Making staff take weeks of unpaid leave isn't the answer. Bosses must do the right thing and offer maximum flexibility to mums and dads who can’t work because of childcare. And as a last resort, parents must have a temporary right to be furloughed where their boss will not agree.

The UK’s parental leave system is one of the worst in Europe. It's time for the government to give all parents the right to work flexibly, plus at least ten days’ paid carers leave each year.”

Founder of Mother Pukka Anna Whitehouse said: “What working parents have been tasked with in lockdown is not humanly possible. You’re looking at an average eight hour working day, six hour school day, 12 hours of parenting wrapped around that - that’s 26 hours in a 24 hour day. And I’m hearing daily from women who are stepping back, standing down and logging off because they’re burning out.

"Some are quitting out of choice, many not. Because who looks after kids home-schooling? Who looks after pandemic patients when out of hospital? Who takes a Tesco shop to elderly neighbours? Who runs community What’s App groups making sure everyone has everything they need?

"This unpaid labour is mainly strapped to female shoulders because - for all the International Women’s Days Sellotaped together - that’s the current working world we live in.

"One thing that can change right now is seeing the Government supporting all businesses to enable them to offer a much more flexible solution and furlough. The system needs to step up for parents before we step back to the 1950s.”

Founder and CEO of Pregnant Then Screwed Joeli Brearley said: “The parents of young children are currently being asked to either sacrifice their income or their child’s education and care; placing them in an impossible situation.

“We know that this burden is predominantly falling to mothers, and the consequences for maternal employment will be disastrous.

“What we are seeing here is a cry for help on a massive scale. Our advice lines are awash with mothers who have no idea how to care for their children and maintain their paid employment when their employer is refusing to furlough them.

“This is an emergency and if the government doesn’t step in soon there will be a generational roll back in maternal employment that will take us decades to repair.”

Editors note

- The TUC self-report survey: The TUC surveyed 51,735 working mums between 7-10 January 2021, recruiting them via trade union and social media channels. Around 3,100 (1 in 16) mums had requested furlough. Of those 3,100 who requested furlough, around 2,200 (71%) had their request turned down.

- A summary of the poll findings can be found at:  
- Flexible furlough is available for caring responsibilities from a minimum of seven days and can also be given on a part-time basis, meaning families could choose to share caring responsibilities:

- A new temporary right to furlough: The TUC is calling for a legal right to access the furlough scheme for parents and those with caring responsibilities who have had these significantly disrupted due to coronavirus restrictions, and people who cannot work because they are required to shield.  The right would apply in situations in which workers can show that: 

  • Existing childcare or other caring arrangements have been substantially altered because of coronavirus related restrictions, for example, school or nursery closures. While workers in this situation can request furlough, at present they have no right to any form of paid leave other than existing holiday entitlements; Or,  
  • They are required to ‘shield’ because they are clinically extremely vulnerable, and cannot work from home, or they live with someone in this situation. Shielding workers can currently access sick pay, but at just £95.85 a week the level is too low to make this a realistic option for many workers.  

- In all cases, before the right to furlough is exercised, employers must have a conversation with their employee about giving additional paid leave, additional flexibility with no loss of pay or possible alternative forms of work during this period for example working from home, undertaking alternative work or changing work times. Only after this has been exhausted should the employee be able to exercise their right to be furloughed. In addition, the government must reiterate that workers who take up furlough cannot be discriminated against because they have been furloughed, and should have the right to be offered suitable alternative employment (without having to apply for it) in a redundancy situation – a similar protection to women on maternity leave.
- The Trades Union Congress (TUC) exists to make the working world a better place for everyone. We bring together more than 5.5 million working people who make up our 48 member unions. We support unions to grow and thrive, and we stand up for everyone who works for a living.

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