Whilst like paid annual leave, unpaid leave is more commonly known as being at the employer’s discretion, there are two areas where unpaid leave is protected by law.
- Parental and carers rights, such as parental leave.
- Time off to carry out public duties, such as jury service and magistrate duties.
Outside of these two areas, unpaid leave is at the employer’s discretion.
Unpaid Leave for Parents
Those eligible for unpaid leave are employees who need to take leave to look after a child’s welfare.
Under the Government guidelines, parents can take leave for the following circumstances:
- Spending more time with their children
- To review new schools
- To support settling a child into new childcare routines
- Spending more time with family, such as to visit grandparents
Unpaid parental leave entitles eligible employees to take up to 18 weeks’ leave for each child or adopted child, up until the children reach the age of 18 years old.
Employees are limited to 4 weeks in each year for each child, and leave must be taken in full weeks, rather than in individual days.
- Employees must have been with their company for more than a year.
- The employee must be named on the child’s birth or adoption certificate.
- Have or expect to have parental responsibility (following the Government guidelines)
- The parent must not be classified as self-employed or a ‘worker’, e.g. an agency worker or contractor.
- The employee is not a foster parent (unless they have secured parental responsibility through the courts)
- The child must be under the age of 18 years old.
In December 2014, shared parental leave came into force, which enabled employees to choose how they can share their time off work following the birth or adoption of a child.
This type of leave supported employees with the flexibility on how they could share the caring responsibilities, and in some cases their financial requirements.
The entitlement allows employees to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay, along with the opportunity to be off together or stagger leave to ensure one parent/guardian is with their child in the infants the first year.
Whilst from an employer point of view, it can be frustrating and come with operational impact, it is extremely important to understand the employee rights, and be fully aware of the employee’s needs, to support them, not forgetting that the employees/parents are entitled to the above for each child, not just the individual’s job, and any parental leave can be carried over to a new employer, should the employee change employers.
As an example…
If an employee used 7 weeks for parental unpaid leave with a previous employer, they could only have 11 weeks with their new employer once they are eligible, and this information can be included in a factual employment reference.
Employees are also legally entitled to request time off for certain public duties, as well as their normal holiday entitlement. As an employer, you can choose to pay them for their time off, but it is not compulsory.
All employees must be granted time off for jury service, but they can also get a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off for:
- A magistrate or otherwise known as a justice of the peace
- To be a local councillor
- To be a school governor
- If you are required for any statutory tribunal (for example an employment tribunal)
- A member of the managing or governing body of an educational establishment
- A member of a health authority
- A member of the school council or board in Scotland
- A member of the Environment Agency or the Scottish Environment Protection Agency
- A member of the prison independent monitoring boards (England or Wales) or a member of the prison visiting committees (Scotland)
- A member of Scottish Water or a Water Customer Consultation Panel
- A Trade Union member (For trade union duties)
What Counts As Reasonable Time Off?
The amount of time off needs to be agreed between the employee and employer before attendance based on:
- How long the expected duties might go on for
- Depending on the amount of time off the employee has already had off for public duties
- The impact the time off required could have on the business
As an employer the time off can be refused if the employee is:
- An agency worker
- A member of the armed forces or police services
- Employed on a gas or oil rig at sea, or on a fishing vessel away at sea
- A merchant seaman
- Civil servants, if the public duties are connected to political activities restricted under their terms and conditions of employment
Or if the employer feels the time off is unreasonable.
All the above can request time off for jury duties, and an employer cannot refuse time off for this, neither are they obliged to pay for the time taken off for jury service. Jury service can be claimed by the employee for a loss of earnings through the courts.
Other Reasons an Employee Can Request for Unpaid Leave
There is a variety of reasons an employee can request for unpaid leave, which is at the discretion of the employer.
Here are some examples:
- Time off to study
- Career breaks
- Time off to care for non-dependants
- Medical and dental appointments
There must be business expectations communicated to all those required, such as managers or SME owners and HR Departments who agree time off, are aware of the existing presidency and of setting precedence and communicating these, to ensure consistency and reduce grievances within the workforce.
At Wurkplace, we would recommend that as well as a holiday policy, that any business also implements a dependency and or unpaid leave policy. This way the employees will have it laid out to them what their entitlement is and will also help create a fairer approach to time off.
Can Unpaid Leave Have an Impact on The Business Culture?
It is important to understand that whilst having an unpaid leave policy can be helpful for employees, a business and managers need to understand that some groups of employees may need to use the facility more than others.
This can come with a risk of creating an unfair balance in the business, especially if unpaid leave is the answer to all medical appointments and family-related requests.
In circumstances of disabled employees and those with chronic health conditions will potentially need more time off for attendance to appointments.
Also, despite a new era of equal opportunity and diversity, in society today more than often women are still the primary caregivers in many families.
This can mean that they may request more unpaid leave than the males in your business, this could also result in a pay gap and culture that is focused on the able-bodied and child-free employees.
We strongly recommend implementing other supportive approaches such as a flexible policy. This can help employees balance either their medical or care duties, avoiding the need to take unpaid leave.
Wurkplace has seen a more positive, productive, and inclusive workforce through our experiences and client’s businesses.
An approach to flexible working could be from home working, flexible hours, a flexible approach to the working culture that can reduce the need and amount of unpaid leave hours/days, increasing more man-hours out of loyalty for their employers. This will help improve employee financial well-being and support a positive business culture.
For further advice and guidance, please contact Wurkplace’s HR support team directly to review your current business needs, such as high amounts of unpaid leave, absence leave patterns, and implementation of policies and procedures through our business support model.
With over 10 years HR generalist and management experience, Amanda has worked across a number of business sectors and understands the importance of a robust and practical HR processes.
She is passionate about sharing her experiences and coaching clients and their teams through the day to day successful people management, utilising her qualification as an experience Mental Health First Aider.