Low-paid parents are being penalised by their boss for trying to fit childcare around irregular hours, a new study has found.
Requesting family-friendly working patterns leads to mums and dads getting fewer hours, worse shifts and, in some cases, losing their jobs altogether, the survey by the TUC of 1,000 parents found.
The study paints a bleak picture of life in sectors such as retail, hospitality and social care, where low-paid parents are dipping into holiday and sick leave to look after their children.
One parent even disclosed their employer refused to let them leave work to take their child to hospital.
‘Flexible working’ doesn’t apply to me
The TUC study of 1,000 parents found:
42% felt punished by their boss for asking for more flexibility and 47% said they are struggling to manage work and childcare.
One in four (26%) had their shifts changed at short notice
One in five (19%) were given their rota less than a week in advance, leaving parents struggling to find childcare.
29% had dipped into holiday allowance and sick leave in order to look after their children over the last year.
More than half (58%) of mums and dads working in low-paid sectors like retail, hospitality and social care said that they didn’t know what rights they were entitled to
Nearly two in three (63%) were unaware they were entitled to unpaid parental leave. These working parents felt the terms “flexible working” and “work-life balance” didn’t apply to them.
Half of dads (48%) felt stigmatised at work due to needing flexibility and felt uncomfortable asking their boss to be flexible.
Here, four low-paid parents tell of their attempts to juggle work and family life.
‘My manager thought I was lying’
Becky Thomson is a 29-year-old mum of three from Bracknell. Her girls are 10, four and nine months. She works 25 hours a week for a large retailer and said she is buckling under the pressure of managing childcare with her hours.
She said: “If the kids are sick I try to go to work but I can’t always.
“Recently my daughter was very ill on a Saturday night with a high temperature and we had to take her to our local A&E.
“The doctors confirmed that she had tonsillitis and ear infections in both ears. So I had to miss work on the Sunday, which happened to be Father’s Day. When I went back in on the Monday my manager said that she thought I was lying and I had just wanted to have Father’s Day off.
“So I had to take in a letter from the doctors to prove I was telling the truth. I feel like I get pinpointed for not being able to do any overtime or weekends. So people say ‘well, Becky never works weekends’.
“There are comments and it can be quite bitchy. But I can’t work weekends – my eldest and middle daughter are at school so weekends are our only family time.”
‘I want to set a good example for my kids’
Michael Barker, 26, of Leicestershire is father to two children aged 20 months and 9 months and he is the sole earner in the family as his wife uses a wheelchair.
He is part of a non-emergency ambulance crew, mainly transporting patients between hospitals.
He said: “I find it tough to balance things.
“I’m proud of being a father and want to set a good example for my kids. But there are days when I get up, get dressed, play with them for five minutes, and when I get home, they’re already in bed. It should be better than that.
“And if a manager dumps extra hours on you, sometimes you don’t know when you’ll make it home.”
He added: “My daughter was four weeks old when she got bronchitis. She spent two weeks in hospital. It was a scary time. I called my line manager and the control room, and they told me to come into work the next day, and that I could visit my daughter after work. Her condition got worse, so they agreed to give me the time off, but only if I took it out of my paid holiday.
“When your kid’s in hospital, you don’t really have a choice. I just want to be able to provide for my family, and be there to take care of them. I work hard, but I don’t just want to work to survive – I want to see some benefits for my family too.”
‘I feel like a burden’
David Bell, 30, is a shop worker from Stockport. He lives with his partner and four-year-old son.
He said: “My son is still young and it’s hard to juggle getting him to nursery when both my partner and I work.
“If I get a call from the nursery that he’s not well then I have to ask for a half-day, and my work frown on that kind of impromptu leave request.
“I feel like I’m a burden when I’m begging my manager for the unexpected time off – and I don’t want to make a bad name for myself at work, or for people to think that I’m not reliable.
“If my son’s been ill overnight and we know he can’t go into nursery then I’ve had to ask my boss for emergency holiday. Then again I worry about looking bad.
“I think that if parents knew what rights they had then life would be a lot less stressful. And some of the rights aren’t clear – which lets employers hide behind the vagueness. Every employer should talk to new staff about their rights to time off for caring responsibilities. Laws are in force technically – but not in practice if no one is using them.”
‘If your boss doesn’t like you they can just say no’
Kirsty Arthur, a 27-year-old mum of two from Cornwall, works in retail part-time. Her boys are 2 years old and 5 months old and she is an USDAW union rep.
She said: “When my son was ill I would take time off work but if you have an absence percentage higher than 3% then you have to go through a disciplinary process. I was only working four shifts a week so if I missed a few shifts to look after my son then that really pushed my percentage up.
“So every time I came back I had to go through that process which was a bit demoralising. And the more times I had to go through that disciplinary process, then the more upset the bosses got with me.
“I know my legal rights about time off to look after my children, but that’s because I’m a union rep. It makes me sad that other colleagues don’t know their rights and don’t fight for them. They’re not very easy rights to use. Managers are supposed to be impartial but it’s just down to one person’s opinion and if they don’t like you they can just say no.”
‘It’s a nightmare’
The Government has introduced legislation which will entitle parents to 30 hours free childcare for lower earners.
But parents on certain employment contracts – such as zero-hours contracts workers, agency workers and casual work – don’t always have the same parental leave rights as others.
The TUC is campaigning for those rights to be extended.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Too many workplaces expect mums and dads to forget all about their kids as soon as they walk through the door. But it’s a nightmare to plan childcare when your boss changes your shifts at the drop of a hat, and you never work the same weekly hours twice.
“Many parents fear losing shifts, taking unpaid leave or being viewed badly at work if they need time off to look after their kids. And it is shocking that some mums and dads are being stopped from taking their children to hospital when they are sick.
“All workers should be given notice of their shifts at least one month in advance. Everyone at work should get the same parents’ rights from day one – and everyone should be given written information about these rights.
“My advice to working dads and mums is this: join a union today. Your union will make sure you get your legal rights to time off to look after your kids.”