The National Union of Teachers has announced industrial action across England and Wales during February and March over disputes concerning pay, with national strikes on 1 February and 15 – 16 March, and several other regional dates. Scotland is also facing a rolling programme of teaching strikes until April.
With over 23,000 schools affected across England and Wales, the potential disruption for working parents and their employers should not be underestimated, especially as we do not know how long the strike action will continue. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is currently making its way through parliament which, if enacted, will allow minimum service levels to be required in certain sectors (including education) during periods of industrial action. This could reduce the impact of teaching strikes on working parents and their employers, but it is not law yet and will not completely eradicate the disruption even if or when it is.
Instead, employers should prepare for disruption over the coming months and consider the effects on their parent employees and other staff. Employers who anticipate the challenges faced, engage early to facilitate a solution, and plan for the longer term rather than simply the currently announced strike dates, will be best placed to minimise the impact in the workplace. Employers should also keep in mind that employees may only receive very short notice of school closures or adapted arrangements, with teachers not required to inform their employer if they intend to strike, making advanced planning more difficult in some cases. Teachers’ own childcare issues during the strikes may also impact the ability of certain schools to stay open which again, may be an issue that arises at the last minute.
Of course, occasional school closures do happen (snow days, for example, are not uncommon in winter months), and employers will be well versed with managing the knock-on impact on working parents and managing requests for, for example, emergency leave, unpaid leave, annual leave, time off in lieu (TOIL), and flexibility (such as working at home or adjusted hours of work). Strike days are, in many ways, no different but there are a few particular points to remember, plus the regular and widespread nature of the planned action provides both employees and employers with an opportunity to plan ahead.
The dates of the teachers’ strikes are well publicised and while the first dates are only a couple of days away, working parents have some time to explore alternative arrangements for their school aged children, and should be encouraged to do so. However, for a variety of reasons, this may not be possible leaving affected parents looking to take time off or otherwise balance their work and family life. Expectations as to what is reasonable may also change over time.
Some affected working parents will want to continue working, albeit from home, on strike days if they can. Remote and hybrid working is commonplace for many these days, and depending on the age, needs and circumstances of their children, many employees will be able to manage their work alongside their childcare responsibilities with limited impact on productivity. For others this will be more challenging and employers will need to consider carefully the extent to which they will agree to home working in circumstances where productivity is likely to be significantly impaired, balancing the needs of the business and impact on other staff, with being flexible, tolerant and understanding.
Other affected parents will prefer (or need to, because home working is not feasible) to take the day off, and have several options in this situation.
Some employees may look to rely on emergency leave. However, the statutory right to unpaid emergency leave is intended for unexpected and last-minute issues and the planned strikes do not technically fit into this category as working parents do have some (albeit limited) time to find alternative arrangements for their children. Employers, and particularly those who continue to pay staff taking emergency leave, should carefully consider whether they would permit strike days under their policy and act consistently when applying their decision.
Otherwise, employers should expect requests for annual leave, TOIL, or (perhaps less popular) unpaid leave. These requests may come in at short notice, particularly where alternative arrangements fail to materialise or fall through. Employers should be accommodating and consider waiving any notice requirements in their relevant policies. Again, acting consistently is advisable to avoid complaints of unfair treatment.
Early engagement with working parents affected by the strikes will be helpful to understand the likely level of staff absence on strike days, allowing time for proactive consideration of what additional cover is needed, and where any extra resource will come from. Where employers are relying on existing staff to cover for absent colleagues, clear communication and measures to maintain goodwill with those individuals will help avoid disharmony, particularly if the industrial action continues into the medium and long term.