Bosses are punishing parents for taking their sick children to hospital, according to a “shocking” TUC study that finds many low-paid workers are disciplined for taking time off for childcare.
One mother who works in retail said: “My baby stopped breathing and I had to go to hospital – I got threatened with a disciplinary.”
Another mother working in social care said that when she had to rush her son to A&E because he was having difficulty breathing, she received a call from her manager asking when she would be back at work. “Some managers have no sympathy,” she said.
The report found 42% of parents felt penalised at work if they asked for flexible hours, with some fearing they might lose their job.
A further 47% said they struggled to balance work with parenting, despite legal changes in the past decade intended to make it easier for parents to spend time with their children.
The TUC based its findings on a survey of more than 1,000 people with combined household incomes of £28,000 or less. Respondents were on a variety of contracts, including some on permanent contracts who also had irregular hours and were only told about shifts at short notice.
The study found 29% of parents had to use annual leave in the last year when their child was sick. Many workers were unaware of their right to 18 weeks unpaid parental leave if they have held their job for a year.
Kirsty Arthur, 27, from Cornwall, works part-time in retail and is on maternity leave. She said: “When my son was ill I would take time off work but if you have an absence percentage higher than 3% then you have to go through a disciplinary process. I was only working four shifts a week, so if I missed a few shifts to look after my son then that really pushed my percentage up.
“So every time I came back I had to go through that process which was a bit demoralising. And the more times I had to go through that disciplinary process, then the more upset the bosses got with me.”
Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, said: “Many parents fear losing shifts, taking unpaid leave or being viewed badly at work if they need time off to look after their kids. And it is shocking that some mums and dads are being stopped from taking their children to hospital when they are sick.
“It’s time the government changed the law so everyone gets at least a month’s notice of their shifts. They need to make sure everyone at work can get the same parents’ rights from day one – and that everyone knows about those rights.
Prof Nicole Busby, the acting head of the law school at Strathclyde University, described the findings as shocking, but said they would come as no surprise to low-paid workers.
“There is a right to request flexible work but this is of no practical use to those on zero-hours contracts who often don’t even know their working hours in advance … Even where it does apply, it is merely a ‘right’ to ask for a particular arrangement and your employer can refuse on a range of different business grounds.”
Sarah Jackson, the chief executive of the charity Working Families, said: “Parental rights are meaningless if parents can’t use them for fear of being seen as ‘unreliable’, or of getting ‘special treatment’.”
Workers blamed an irregular hours culture, with many saying their employer could change their shift on a whim. One in four (26%) parents said they had their shifts changed at short notice.
The TUC is calling for all workers to have the right to be notified of their shifts one month in advance. It is campaigning for all working parents – including those on zero-hours contracts – to have the same parents’ rights.
The union said these rights were only available to workers with “employee” status – meaning 1.5 million will not have these rights if they become parents.
Busby said: “To give working parents real choice about how they balance paid work with family commitments, the government needs to ensure that workers are provided with guaranteed working hours and that individuals feel able to ask for suitable adjustments as and when family circumstances require them without fear of repercussions.
“There is also a real need for affordable good quality childcare which is accessible for all working parents as this would go some way to removing the daily anxiety experienced by lots of parents.”
A Department for Business spokesperson said: “The continued strength of our economy is built on the flexibility of our labour market. More than 20 million people in the UK are eligible to request flexible working and businesses must have a legitimate reason to refuse a request.
“We commissioned Matthew Taylor to review modern working practices to ensure our employment rules and rights keep up to date to reflect new ways of working. We are considering his report carefully and will respond in due course.”