Parental leave and time off for dependants
Employees with children under the age of 18 are entitled to take periods of unpaid parental leave. The right to parental leave applies to male and female employees.
An employee must comply with certain qualification and notification requirements before taking this leave. However, you can agree with employees or their representatives to enhance these requirements where appropriate.
This guide sets out what an employee must do to qualify, and how you should deal with a request, including how you can postpone the leave, contractual issues during the leave period and the employee's return to work. It also details how you might go about setting up a workforce agreement.
The guide also deals with the right to take time off to deal with emergencies involving dependants and looks at family-friendly ways of working.
Parental leave entitlement
Employees are entitled to 18 weeks' unpaid parental leave if:
- they have at least one year's continuous service with you and/or an associated employer
- they have a child under the age of 18
- they have - or expect to have - parental responsibility for the child
A week's leave is equal to the length of time the employee is normally required to work, eg a week's leave is:
- five days for an employee working Monday to Friday
- two days for an employee working Tuesday and Wednesday only
The parent doesn't have to be living with the child to qualify.
The right applies to each child. Therefore, if an employee has twins they are entitled to 36 weeks' parental leave.
Parental leave cannot be transferred between parents and is a different entitlement to shared parental leave and pay.
The leave must be taken within a set period - see when parental leave can be taken and for how long.
Entitlement where the employee changes employer
The 18-week entitlement applies to an individual child, not to individual employment.
Therefore if, for example, an employee has taken eight weeks' parental leave with their previous employer, they are only entitled to take another ten weeks while in your employment. They must also have completed a year's service with you to qualify.
Evidence of entitlement
You can ask an employee to produce evidence to show that:
- the employee is the parent of a child
- the employee has parental responsibility for the child
- the child is below the age at which the right to parental leave ceases
This evidence could be:
- the child's birth certificate
- papers confirming a child's adoption or the date of placement for adoption
Your request for evidence must be reasonable, eg it may not be reasonable for you to check on the employee's entitlement on every occasion on which leave is asked for.
You are not required by law to keep formal records of employees' parental leave.
Parental leave notification and postponement
An employee must give you at least 21 days' notice before a period of parental leave begins, of both the start and end dates of the leave period they intend to take.
The employee does not have to give you this notice in writing unless you request it. This notice is valid if orally given. However, there must be evidence of a formal application for leave. It would be sensible to consider confirming this in writing ie receipt of employee's notice.
An employee must notify you 21 days before their maternity, adoption, paternity or shared parental leave ends if they want to take parental leave immediately after the end of their maternity or adoption leave.
Notification for parental leave immediately after childbirth or placement for adoption
If an employee wants to take parental leave immediately after the birth of a child, they must give you 21 days' notice before the beginning of the expected week of childbirth.
If an employee wants to take parental leave immediately after the placement for adoption of a child, they must give you 21 days' notice of the expected week of placement. In rare cases where this is not possible, an adoptive parent should give you notice as soon as is reasonably practicable.
As long as the employee gives the right notice, their parental leave will start on the day on which the child is:
- born - regardless of whether the child is born early or late
- placed for adoption
You should note that taking parental leave following childbirth applies only to fathers/partners as the mother will be on maternity leave.
Postponing parental leave
If you have good business reasons, you can postpone the leave for up to six months after the beginning of the leave period the employee originally requested. However, you cannot postpone leave so that it ends after a child's 18th birthday.
You are only entitled to postpone leave if it would cause significant disruption to your business, eg if leave was requested:
- over a period of peak seasonal production
- at the same time as other employees have requested leave
- when the employee's absence would unduly harm your business
- where a replacement cannot be found within the notice period
- in the education sector where postponement is necessary to ensure the continuation of education
Note that you can't postpone leave where the employee wants to take it immediately after their child is born or placed with them for adoption.
If you need to postpone your employee's parental leave, you must consult your employee about a new date.
To do this, you must write to the employee within seven days of receiving the employee's notification explaining why you need to postpone their leave and confirming the new start and end date.
You must allow the employee to take the same amount of parental leave as they originally applied for. You cannot reduce the amount of leave requested or break it up into shorter periods.
Read more on when can parental leave be taken and for how long.
When parental leave can be taken and for how long
An employee can only take a period of parental leave before the child's 18th birthday.
Unless you agree they can take more leave, employees can take a maximum of four weeks' leave in any year in respect of any individual child. Therefore an employee with twins could take up to eight weeks in any one year.
An employee can take a period of leave immediately after the end of maternity, paternity, adoption or shared parental leave.
Unless you agree leave can be taken in shorter blocks, periods of leave must be taken in multiples of one week - unless the child in respect of whom leave is being taken is entitled to disability living allowance, personal independence payment or armed forces independence payment. In this case the employee may take the leave in periods shorter than one week - it may be taken as individual days.
Irregular working weeks
If an employee's working pattern varies from week to week, you must calculate an average working week as a fraction of the period for which the employee is required to work in a year.
For example, if you have a contract with an employee to work three days a week for 30 weeks, four days a week for 18 weeks, and two days a week for four weeks, you would calculate the number of days leave in their average week by dividing the total number of working days in these periods by 52.
If an employee takes leave in blocks of less than one week, a week is only deducted from the overall entitlement of 18 weeks when the short periods of leave add up to what would be a normal or average working week. This would only apply in situations where a workforce or a relevant agreement allows leave to be taken in shorter periods than a week or to the parents of a child who is entitled to disability living allowance, personal independence payment or armed forces independence payment. This is because under the default scheme, any leave that an employee takes in a week is equivalent to a week.
Reasons for taking parental leave
An employee may only take parental leave to care for the child. This means looking after the welfare of a child and can include making arrangements for the good of a child.
For example, an employee might take parental leave to:
- spend more time with the child
- accompany the child during a stay in hospital
- check out new schools
- help settle the child into new childcare arrangements
- enable a family to spend more time together, eg taking the child to stay with grandparents
Caring for a child does not necessarily mean the employee has to be with the child 24 hours a day.
If you find that the employee is using the parental leave for some other purpose, eg to do other work, you could deal with this using your disciplinary procedure. Read more on disciplinary procedures, hearings and appeals.
A period of notice is normally required before taking parental leave - see notification and postponement of parental leave. Therefore, parental leave is not suitable where an employee's child suddenly falls ill.
However, the employee will be able to take a short period of emergency leave to care for the child - see time off to deal with emergencies involving dependants.
You can agree to allow an employee to take parental leave at short notice, eg if a child falls ill.
Contractual issues during parental leave
The employment contract continues during any period of parental leave - unless it is terminated by the employer or employee.
Terms and conditions during parental leave
Some terms and conditions of employment continue to apply during parental leave.
You must continue to abide by the terms and conditions of employment relating to:
- notice periods
- any compensation if the employee is made redundant
- the business' disciplinary or grievance procedures
The employee must continue to abide by the terms and conditions of employment relating to:
- notice periods
- disclosure of confidential information
- acceptance of gifts, or other benefits
- working for another employer
The employment contract continues during parental leave, unless it is terminated by you or the employee. This means that the employee continues to benefit from their statutory employment rights during parental leave and from your continued trust and confidence. Your employee must continue to act in good faith.
Whether or not other contractual terms and conditions, such as access to a company car or mobile phone and perks such as health club membership, continue to apply depends on the contract of employment - or you can decide on a discretionary, case-by-case basis. You should exercise caution in using discretion to avoid complaints of discrimination.
Generally an employee's seniority and pension rights are unaffected by parental leave and rights on return from parental leave should be the same as they would have been if the employee had not been absent.
Since parental leave is generally unpaid, contributions to a money purchase scheme by employer and employee will usually be nil, unless the rules of the scheme provide otherwise. However, for final salary schemes, the level of employers' contributions depends on actuarial advice and not directly on the amount of an employee's earnings. Since parental leave counts as pensionable service, the employer may have to continue making contributions in order to keep the fund at an appropriate level.
However, if you chose to pay your employee during parental leave, you will need to make pension contributions as though they were working normally. Know your legal obligations on pensions.
If a redundancy situation arises while an employee is on parental leave, you must keep them informed and involve them in any consultations that are required.
If they are selected for redundancy, you must consider them for any alternative work that might be available.
An employee continues to accrue their statutory paid holiday entitlement during parental leave. Whether or not they also accrue contractual paid holiday entitlement depends on either the contract of employment, or what you agree with the employee when they take their leave. Know how much holiday to give your staff.
Pay and benefits
Parental leave is unpaid - unless you have made paid parental leave a contractual right.
It is up to you - in agreement with the employee - to decide what contractual benefits continue during parental leave, eg access to a company car, use of a mobile phone, health club membership.
Whether or not you must pay a bonus to an employee on parental leave depends on the type of bonus and the terms of the particular bonus scheme.
Generally an employee will be entitled to the bonus if it relates to performance or work done before the leave began.
Therefore an employee is unlikely to be entitled to the bonus if it is a reward for future work or performance, during a period in which the employee would be absent on parental leave.
Payments of bonuses during parental leave can be a complicated area. You should seek independent legal advice if you are unsure.
Returning to work after parental leave
An employee is entitled to return to the same job as before if the parental leave was for an isolated period of four weeks or less.
An employee is also entitled to return to the same job if the period of parental leave was for four weeks or less and followed a period (of any combination of) maternity, adoption, paternity or shared parental leave of 26 weeks or less in respect of the same child. Read more on maternity leave and pay, paternity leave and pay and adoption leave and pay.
If the parental leave period is longer than four weeks, or is preceded or followed by any period (or some combination of) maternity, adoption, paternity or shared parental leave of more than 26 weeks, the employee is entitled to return to the job as before - but only if it's reasonably practicable.
If it is not reasonably practicable for the employee to return to the same job, they are entitled to return to a similar job that is both suitable for him or her and appropriate for him or her to do in the circumstances with the same or better terms and conditions and status as the old job.
An employee returning to work after parental leave is entitled to benefit from any general improvements to the rate of pay (and any other terms and conditions) which you may have introduced for their grade or class of work while they have been away.
Agreeing a workplace parental leave scheme
You can agree your own parental leave scheme with your employees, although this must meet certain minimum requirements of workplace parental leave schemes.
The agreement can be:
- A collective agreement with a recognised trade union - find out how to work effectively with trade unions.
- A workforce agreement - ie an agreement with all or some of your employees - but only where there is no collective agreement in place.
- By agreement with an individual employee - this could either be set out in the contract of employment or be a discretionary agreement made with an employee on a case-by-case basis. You should exercise caution in using discretion to avoid complaints of discrimination.
Deciding who you are going to make a workforce agreement with
You must first decide who you want to make the agreement with - will it be the whole workforce or a group within it?
If it is a group, they must:
- share a workplace
- do related work
- belong to a particular department or unit within their employer's business
Electing representatives for workforce agreement
You must then arrange to elect employee representatives to negotiate the agreement with you.
To do this, you should:
- decide on the number of representatives to be elected
- ensure candidates are members of the workforce on the date of the election or, in the case of a group, a member of the group to whom the agreement is to apply
- allow each employee a vote for each representative to be elected to represent them
- ensure as far as is reasonably practicable that they are elected by secret ballot
- ensure that the votes are counted fairly and accurately
Ensuring that a workforce agreement is valid
For the agreement to be valid, you must:
- put the agreement in writing
- show it to all employees to whom it will apply, together with a guide explaining what it means
- have it signed off by all representatives or by most of the workforce where 20 or fewer employees are employed when it comes into effect
In addition, the agreement cannot last for more than five years.
Minimum requirements of workplace parental leave schemes
A workplace agreement on parental leave must, at the very least, comply with certain minimum requirements. The agreement can be more favourable for the employee, for example a shorter period of notice or allowing leave to be taken in shorter blocks.
Default provisions for a workplace parental leave scheme
The default provisions for a workplace parental leave scheme are that it must:
- allow an employee with parental responsibilities and one year's continuous service, to take unpaid parental leave
- allow an employee to take a total of 18 weeks' parental leave for each child - see parental leave entitlement
- allow for an employee to give 21 days' notice of their intention to take parental leave - see parental leave notification and postponement
- permit an employee to take leave up to the child's 18th birthday - see when parental leave can be taken and for how long
- limit an employee to no more than four weeks' parental leave per year - see when parental leave can be taken and for how long
- permit an employee to take leave only in blocks of one week (individual days if the child is entitled to disability living allowance, persoanl independence payment or armed forces independence payment) - see when parental leave can be taken and for how long
- ensure that the employee's employment contract continues and certain minimum contractual conditions continue to apply - see contractual issues during parental leave
- ensure that the employee is entitled to return to the same job or, under certain conditions, a similar job - see returning to work after parental leave
Failure to reach agreement on a parental leave scheme
If you fail to reach - or simply don't have - a workforce agreement on parental leave arrangements, you must comply with the default provisions.
Enhancing a parental leave scheme
You can of course agree with workplace representatives to enhance your parental leave scheme by, for example:
- paying employees, eg full or half pay, while they are on leave
- allowing employees to take more than their maximum statutory parental leave entitlement
- specifying a notice period that is less than 21 days
Time off to deal with emergencies involving dependants
All employees have the right to a reasonable amount of unpaid time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant.
A dependant is a spouse, partner, child or parent, or a person who lives with the employee. It does not include tenants, lodgers or boarders living in the family home or an employee who lives in the household such as a housekeeper. A dependant could also be someone else who reasonably relies on the employee for care, eg an elderly neighbour.
Employees can take leave when a dependant:
- falls ill, or is injured or assaulted - including mental illness or injury, eg emotional distress
- goes into labour
They can also take leave when they need to:
- make longer-term care arrangements for a dependant who is ill or injured
- arrange or attend a dependant's funeral
- deal with an unexpected problem in care arrangements, eg if a childminder is unexpectedly unavailable
- deal with an incident involving the employee's child during school hours, eg suspension from school
How much time off can an employee take?
The right is to reasonable time off. This amount of time isn't fixed - it should simply allow the employee to deal with the immediate problem and put any other necessary care arrangements in place.
For example, an employee would not normally be able to take two weeks off to care for a sick child, but they could take one or two days to take the child to the doctor and arrange for someone else to look after him or her.
Emergency time off and protection against detriment or dismissal
You must not:
- subject an employee to detrimental treatment for taking emergency time off
- dismiss an employee - or select them for redundancy - because they took, or sought to take, emergency leave
If an employee believes that you have treated them unfairly or dismissed them in these circumstances, they may take a claim of detrimental treatment or unfair dismissal to an industrial tribunal - regardless of their length of service.
Promoting family-friendly working
Informing your staff of your organisation's policies and procedures in relation to various parental rights
Promoting a family friendly working environment can lead to a number of business benefits including:
- increased productivity
- reduced absenteeism
- attracting new staff
- retention of current staff
Communicating family friendly policies
It's a good idea to set out in writing, eg in a staff handbook, the:
- statutory family-friendly rights to which employees are entitled
- enhancements to those rights, if any, that exist, and whether they are contractual or discretionary - you should exercise caution in using discretion to avoid complaints of discrimination
- procedures they need to follow if they wish to take up these rights
These rights should - at the very least - include rights in relation to:
- shared parental leave and pay
- maternity leave and pay
- paternity leave and pay
- adoption leave and pay
- parental leave entitlement
- time off to deal with emergencies involving dependants
- flexible working: the law and best practice
Allowing flexibility in your procedures
You should try to build some flexibility into your procedures to allow your employees the time they need to deal with their childcare responsibilities.
The charity Working Families has more help and advice on helping employees achieve a work-life balance: advice for employers on good working practices.
Providing childcare provision
You may want to consider offering employees some form of childcare provision. This sort of employee benefit can improve:
- staff morale
- recruitment and retention
- the availability of employees
You can help with childcare in a number of ways, eg by:
- making staff aware of tax-free childcare where parents can get up to £500 every three months (£2,000 a year) for each child to help with the costs of childcare
- providing on-site childcare, ie a workplace nursery
- offering childcare allowances - cash payments to allow employees to buy childcare services through a nursery or childminder
Expenses and benefits: childcare - guidance from HM Revenue & Customs.