All workers have the right to take time off in the event of a family emergency. This can be due to a child being unwell or someone else within the household whom the worker has responsibility for. However, this right is limited to an emergency i.e. short term until a more durable solution is identified and the time off is unpaid.

It is not uncommon for staff asking for this time off to request that it be treated as annual leave in order to ensure that their earnings do not fall as a result. However, there is no obligation on the employer to agree to this. It is also important to recognise that a family emergency is not the same as failure to make adequate childcare provision. So, if the childminder is sick once that could be an emergency, but if it’s every week, new childcare arrangements need to be found.

All workers are aware of the right to take maternity leave (if for no better reason than that it’s compulsory for at least two weeks). It is less, but increasingly, common for workers to use shared parental leave, whereby the mother returns to work having taken less than 52 weeks of maternity leave and her partner uses the remaining entitlement. In addition to this, partners can take paternity leave and also parental leave.

Parental leave is open to both mothers and fathers (and adoptive parents or special guardians) and permits up to eighteen weeks to be taken off by each parent, but all of this time is unpaid. Arguably it is therefore quite challenging for workers to take parental leave because their ability to meet the costs of living may well be impaired by having long periods without an income.

Another alternative for workers seeking to balance childcare or other needs is to request flexible working. This concept used to be limited to childcare, but is now open to all workers after they have worked for the company for six months. Flexible working is a bit of a misnomer, because the worker is likely to be requesting a permanent change to their working hours. It’s very important to remember that, whilst it is the worker’s right to make a request, the employer can reject the request if it would detrimentally affect the business.

Family friendly rights are increasing to reflect the changes in our society, in that it’s more and more common to have two earners in each household and that the main bread winner may no longer be male. It is very common for workers to take maternity and subsequently request flexible working, it is likely that we will see an increase in workers seeking to exercise their other rights too.

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