With the General Election just around the corner, one thing has been in the news A LOT: elder care.
The Conservative Party announced that as part of their manifesto, workers would be given a legal right to take a year’s leave to care for elderly relatives.
(There has been what some have called a “u-turn”, with May announcing a “cap” on how much people pay for care, but that’s another story for another time!)
Obviously, as this involved workers, it was slap bang in my remit, so I got a call from BBC Berkshire asking me to go on to the radio and discuss it.
I love doing these radio interviews as they help me to think about and talk through some of my thoughts on the issues raised.
I always try to give a balanced view as I can almost always see the situation from both the employer and employee perspective.
However, on this occasion, I was also focused on the differences between micro and small employers and the impact this kind of policy would have on them vs a larger employer.
In summary, a qualifying employee would be entitled to up to a year off to care for an elderly relative.
My initial thoughts:
- Does it have to be a parent, or would you qualify for an in-law, a grandparent or an aunt without closer relatives?
- Are you only allowed one period of absence or can you have a year off for each of your elderly relatives? And if so, what would the time gap need to be between the absences need to be?
- Does the company have to hold your position open for you, or could it be one of equal standing?
- What proof is needed prior to being able to take leave?
- What happens if the elderly person passes away before the end of the year, can the employee return early? What impact does this have on the fixed term temp hired to cover the leave of absence?
- What happens if the elderly person still requires care at the end of the year and perhaps their condition has deteriorated?
Unlike childcare leave, eldercare appears to be much more complex for employers. A parent can plan for the future care of their child from a specific point in time. The future is much less certain for an adult carer.
Yet the need for time off remains very real and for many employees, there are elder and child care issues (either as a parent or a grandparent) to be managed effectively so that while employees are at work they are performing at the highest and most focused levels, whilst still being able to support the various members of their family.
I do not believe giving people a year off work is the solution.
For the smallest of businesses, having even one employee off could be 10, 25 or 50 percent of the workforce.
If an employer has 2 or more employees requiring time off to care for elderly relatives, a business is just going to stall and potentially fail.
Employers must be able to hire, retain and rely on good quality, highly engaged employees.
A large employer with hundreds or thousands of employees will be able to manage with some employees taking a year off unpaid, but this is just not the case for the smallest of employers.
So, what is the answer?
I believe that employment legislation needs to be much more flexible, enabling and empowering for both employers and employees.
No one has a crystal ball and no one can predict what support elderly relatives will require in 12 months’ time.
By introducing a more flexible approach to work and extending the right to request flexible working to all employees, staff with ongoing responsibilities could potentially reduce their days, reduce their hours and / or take up job shares.
While this won’t work for all roles in all companies, there are advantages to this approach:
- The employee has the right to ask and must put together a business proposal to support their request
- The employer must consider the request properly and respond in reasonable timescale, but is not obliged to accept the proposal if the business cannot cope
- Only one request would be allowed in a 12 month period, allowing for consistency within the business
- The change would be a contractual change to terms and conditions
- The skills and knowledge of the older worker are retained in the business
- This is a long term option to allow for care over an extended period of time, possibly for multiple family members
- This allows people who still require an income to earn while providing care for their elderly relatives
At a time when older workers’ need to stay in the workforce longer and longer for financial reasons and already have a tough time competing with younger employees for jobs, introducing a year off policy is just going to deter employers from hiring older workers.
There is already a significant concern about the risk of an age discrimination claim among employers and the more extensive the ‘rights’ of older employees, the more cautious employers will be about taking on older staff.
In addition, caring responsibilities are generally the domain of the female members of the family and this will be even more so if a year off is granted unpaid as the females are generally paid less than males (not saying this is right or always the case, but this is evidenced in all statistics).
Therefore, the impact on the family income – while still significant – is not as high as it would be if a male member of the family had to take a year off unpaid. This sort of policy will be another factor suppressing the employment and pay of female employees and could again result in discrimination cases, this time for gender.
Business owners in small companies already feel like they have a noose around their necks when it comes to employing staff. They need human resources to grow their business, but the more complex employment legislation becomes, the more employers will look for alternative employment models, including the use of overseas workers, freelancers, zero hour contracts or temporary staff.
Flexibility is going to be essential in futureproofing the UK workforce and enabling staff to take a year off unpaid and guaranteeing them a job on return is not conducive to a competitive, dynamic, economy.
Small businesses make up 99.3% of private sector business but only 24% of small businesses employ staff and this must increase significantly if the UK economy is going to continue to thrive.
What do you think? I’d love to get your view on this issue, so comment below and let me know.