'It's Such An Uncertain Time': Single Parents Question 'Get Back To Work' Advice

Without the help of wider family, and other care options too expensive, rejoining the workforce feels like an impossible mission for those solo parenting.
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“You’ve been at home for seven weeks. Nothing has really changed, but now you can go back to work. Even though you can’t get any childcare and schools aren’t open.”

This is how Ben Brooks-Dutton, a single father, sums up the current government coronavirus advice for parents like himself.

“Any single parent out there would think their employer’s decision could be: ‘Well you’re allowed to come back to work now, but you’re not a viable employee, so I can’t keep you on.’”

Thousands of workers and unions in England raised concerns last week after the government said staff who could not do their jobs from home could go back to work.

But while many grappled with the advice to avoid public transport, or how safe their workplaces might be, single parents have been left wondering how on earth they can return at all.

While childminders have been given the green light to look after children and nannies are allowed to work again, these forms of childcare are financially out of reach for many families.

And with schools and nurseries effectively closed, and social distancing rules preventing family members from helping out, many parents still have no viable childcare options.

Last Monday, asked what parents without childcare should do if they were asked to return to work, the prime minister said it was “only fair to regard that as an obvious barrier to their ability to go back to work”.

“I’m sure employers will agree with that,” Boris Johnson said, assuredly.

But while single parents said they were pleased to hear this, some told HuffPost UK they were worried there weren’t any legal protections for parents – especially those caring for children alone.

Others called for more clarity about childcare options outside of school hours for parents who were needed back at work as the country gradually reopens.

The prime minister’s assurances certainly haven’t stopped nursery manager Emma*, a single mum with a five-old-son, worrying about how she will afford childcare if she’s needed back at work – a job other parents will rely to get back into the workplace.

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“The government has said that nurseries should be prepared to open on June 1, so at the moment, it looks like that is when I’ll be going back to work,” Emma said.

As her son is in reception class – one of the school years ministers hope to get back into the classroom first – she hopes he will be back at school at the same time.

As a critical worker, she would be entitled to a school place for her son anyway.

But it is the question of who will care for her son when classes are over for the day that she worries about.

Emma, who works 45 hours a week, normally relies on her parents to look after her son after school. But with social-distancing rules still in place, this is no longer an option.

“Usually my parents help me out, as the cost of after school clubs are so expensive,” she said.

“I don’t even know if the after school club will be opening at the same time as the school. It’s such an uncertain time.”

She’s not alone in her worries. As a single parent, Yasmine Camilla – who has a seven-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter – is concerned how she would manage if she was needed back at work.

She was furloughed from her job as a project manager last week.

Yasmine said her employer has been “very flexible and reasonable” during the lockdown. But with the lockdown easing, she thinks there could be work for her to do again within two weeks.

While she was working from home during the first weeks of lockdown, she “can be needed on any kind of project throughout the whole business”.

“Some of them, I might not be able to do from home,” she said.

Yasmine Camilla has been furloughed from her job in marketing
Yasmine Camilla has been furloughed from her job in marketing

With schools closed until at least June 1 to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Yasmine said it was unclear what she and other single parents were supposed to do about childcare when they’re still not allowed to see family members.

“I read today that childminders are allowed to reopen, but that wouldn’t help me,” she said. Usually, Yasmine sends her children to a childminder for “wraparound care” outside of school hours.

“If schools weren’t open, I couldn’t afford to pay my childminder for full-time care… That’s not what I have been doing up until now and it’s not budgeted for. I don’t have the money.”

But it’s not just the financial impact of this kind of childcare she’s worried about as a commuter who normally gets a packed train into central London for work.

“Say I was to start reusing the childminder, I could get on the train and catch it there, have no symptoms and give it to the kids in my childminder’s care,” she said. “You don’t know if they have an at risk person at home.

“It’s a complete worry,” she added. “It’s not what is needed to keep the virus levels down.”

Yasmine already felt let down by the government during the lockdown as a single parent. “You could be furloughed if your work ran out, but you couldn’t be furloughed because of childcare,” she said.

“So single parents have not had any support during this whole time and I feel quite let down that I have struggled mentally, physically, financially and emotionally to keep it going for the greater good of the country and the NHS. And for what?

“For it all just to be completely undone, with people being sent back to work with no clear plan of how we’re going to manage ourselves out of this situation? It’s just really worrying to be honest.”

Single dad Ben Brooks-Dutton and his son
Single dad Ben Brooks-Dutton and his son

Ben Brooks-Dutton, a single father and partner at diversity consultancy The Unmistakables, agreed that the government had failed to offer nuanced advice for different groups in society during the pandemic.

Ben said: “At the moment, it feels like the advice is just blindly saying: ‘You’ve been at home for seven weeks. Nothing has really changed, but now you can go back to work. Even though you can’t get any childcare and schools aren’t open.’

While Ben usually relies on a part-time nanny to look after his son outside of school hours, social-distancing rules mean he feels uncomfortable inviting him back into his home – even though the government’s guidelines now allow it.

But as a partner in his business, Ben has been able to ensure that he and his employees – including other parents – won’t be forced back into the workplace.

However, he worries about workers at businesses which are less understanding.

Susan Harris, legal director at trade union GMB, said that unclear messaging from the government had led some employers to try and get workers back into the workplace – without taking into account their lives outside of work.

“The PM has said that he would expect employers with staff who have caring responsibilities to ‘be understanding’ on the issue of continuing to furlough employees whilst schools remain closed,” Harris said.

“But the confused messaging has led to some employers trying to get employees back into work - without carrying out risk assessments and without thinking about caring responsibilities that employees may have.

“We are being contacted by employees faced with this situation and the answer is the same - get your GMB rep involved in the discussions with your employer; why is the employer unable to either continue to furlough our members or allow them to work from home?

“And if the employer will not listen to reason, then we remind them that forcing women with caring responsibilities back into the workplace may leave us with little choice but to commence tribunal claims against the employer for indirect sex discrimination.”

Victoria Benson, chief executive of Gingerbread, a charity that supports single parent families, said single parents were being left to wade through an “awful lot of uncertainty” in the government’s coronavirus recovery strategy.

Any policy changes by ministers must support single parents, rather than “pushing them further into poverty and causing additional anxiety about the future”,” she said.

“For some the news that they may be able to return to work will be very welcome but there are still many questions around schools reopening and childcare provision.”

Victoria added: “Without appropriate childcare it won’t be possible for many single parents to return to work. This will put them at risk of losing their jobs and their income.”


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