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Can I take that time off?

Over the last few years, the UK has built up a treasure chest of rights for employees and workers in respect of time off work. Alongside annual leave, and sick leave, there’s maternity, paternity and adoption leave. There’s the right to unpaid parental leave, and time off for family and dependants. Your employer may also offer time off in other circumstances. Understanding what applies when can be confusing. Some of the rights require you to have been in work for a certain length of time. Some of the rights come with pay – others are unpaid. This is our guide to two of those rights – the right to time off for family and dependants and the right to unpaid parental leave.

When things don’t go to plan – time off for family and dependants

Balancing home and work life is never easy, particularly when you have responsibilities for other people – a partner, children, elderly parents, even a neighbour. If you do, then your first thought in the event of an emergency will be to help them. On the other hand, if you’re expected at work, or already at work, there’s obviously a conflict. The right to time off for family and dependants is there to resolve that conflict. It gives you the right to a reasonable amount of time off to deal with the emergency.

  • Available to ’employees’. The right to time off for family and dependants is available to employees only (rather than to the wider pool of ‘workers’). There is no qualifying period of service – the right to time off is available from the moment you start work.
  • The amount of time off that is ‘reasonable’ will depend on the emergency.If you are called to collect a child from school following an accident, or illness it could be enough time to collect the child and make arrangements for his or her care – or it could include accompanying the child to hospital.
  • Your employer does not have to pay you, but many employers will do so. Check your contract of employment to see if your employer will pay you or not.
  • You cannot use this for something you knew about in advance. If you know your child, or your parent has an appointment, this is not an emergency, and the right to time off doesn’t apply. However, if someone else was due to attend the appointment and is no longer able to do so at short notice, the right to time off for family and dependants might apply.

If the emergency develops into something requiring longer term attention, you will need to consider alternatives – so if there is no one else around who can care for your child while he or she is sick, and you need to take time off to do so, you might be asked to take annual leave instead – or you could use unpaid parental leave.

When you don’t need a holiday – unpaid parental leave

Your paid annual leave is a precious thing. You want to make it count. When appointments or other problems occur, the last thing you want to do is use your annual leave up – otherwise you have no way of taking the break you need for rest and relaxation. If you need to take time off to look after a child, you have an entitlement of 18 weeks’ unpaid leave per child, which you can access once you have been in employment for a year. You don’t need to specify why you want to take the leave, but you can be asked to prove that you have parental responsibility.

  • Available once you have been in employment for a year. Unlike the right to time off for family and dependants, you must have 1 year’s service with your employer before you can take unpaid parental leave
  • Unpaid parental leave is linked to the child, and not to the employmentIf you change employers and have already taken some unpaid parental leave, you do not get a whole new period of entitlement once you have a year’s service with the new employer. You have 18 weeks per child.
  • Unpaid parental leave must be taken in blocks of a week, and up to 4 weeks a year. Your employer may decide to allow you to take your unpaid leave in smaller chunks, or to take more than 4 weeks of your leave in a year.
  • You must give your employer 21 days’ notice. It doesn’t have to be in writing, but you must tell your employer at least 21 days in advance that you wish to take unpaid parental leave. You must also tell them when you are returning to work.
  • Your employer can ask you to postpone your unpaid leave but must have a significant reason for doing so. The employer can’t delay unpaid leave it’s being requested by the father or partner immediately after the birth or adoption of a child, or if it means you would lose your right – for example if they wanted to postpone it until after your child’s 18th birthday. Your employer must write to you within 7 days if he wants to postpone the leave – but he can only postpone it for up to 6 months and cannot change the amount of time you wish to take.

In addition to the statutory rights, your employer may offer more generous rights in the contract of employment. Your employer may choose to pay you if you have to take time off to deal with an emergency involving family or dependants. Some employers allow all staff to take unpaid time off, whether or not it is related to a child. There may be provisions for compassionate leave too in certain circumstances. It’s always worth checking your contract of employment to see what might be available in addition to your statutory rights.

Enforcing your rights

In addition to being able to complain if you are prevented from taking the time off, employees who take time off under these provisions are protected by the law and should not be treated unfavourably or dismissed. If this happens, you should try and resolve it with your employer but failing that, you can complain to the employment tribunal. If you are worried about asking for time off, or you’ve been treated badly as a result of doing so, there are a number of things you can do. If you’re a member of a union, they may be able to help, and ACAS or citizens advice can also help. We also offer legal advice and support to employees and ex-employees who have been treated badly and can help you progress a claim to the employment tribunal. Get in touch to find out more about the services we offer.