Coronavirus schools shutdown: what should employees and employers do?

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Alan Hickey, Service and Operations Director at Peninsula

The Government has confirmed that schools will not reopen next Monday as part of policy to reduce the rising COVID-19 case numbers. While some special education facilities will remain open and Leaving Cert students will attend school three days a week, the overall goal is to reduce the mobility of the population and most schoolchildren will be confined to remote education from home.

The schools shutdown will have a knock on effect for employers. The closing of schools for an extended period will impact working parents who may find it more difficult to handle their work and childcare responsibilities while children are at home. For employers, this will likely generate an increase in requests from staff for time off or more flexibility to care for a child who is home from school.

Employers should immediately engage with any employees who might be so affected to explore the options that might be available. Some employers may have recently updated their employment contracts with business continuity or contingency policies that may be applicable. The terms of an ‘unusual or unexpected absence policy’ may also be relevant in the current circumstances.

From a strictly legal perspective, if employees do not attend for work because they have to stay home to mind their children, they also have no statutory entitlement to be paid. Enforcing this policy without first exploring what options might be available will likely cause employee relations issues. Employers should engage constructively with employees in an effort to reach a mutually acceptable agreement on how to handle a period of time off needed for childcare reasons.

If there is no applicable contractual leave provisions, there are various options available. A period of remote working, agreeing flexible hours or agreeing that time in lieu can be used might work for certain employers. Various statutory leave rights might also be relevant. Parental leave allows parents of children under the age of 12 to take up to 26 weeks of unpaid protected leave. If an affected employee is agreeable, annual leave may be suitable to cover a short period of absence that would allow the employee to make alternative childcare arrangements. If the employee is not agreeable, then the employer must provide one month’s notice of a requirement to take annual leave. Of course not all organisations will be in a position to provide a paid leave option and the only option may to be agree a period of unpaid leave that will allow the employee to handle their childcare responsibilities during the schools shutdown. It is also possible for employers and staff to use a combination of the above statutory and contractual leaves to handle longer-term absences caused by the schools shutdown.

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