Law guide: Employment

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Dependant care leave

Dependant care leave

Who are dependants?

A dependant is the husband, wife, child or parent of the employee. It also includes someone who lives in the same household as the employee. For example, this could be a partner or an elderly aunt or grandparent who lives in the household. It does not include tenants or boarders living in the family home, or someone who lives in the household as an employee, such as a live-in housekeeper.

In cases of illness or injury, or where care arrangements break down, a dependant may also be someone who reasonably relies on the employee for assistance. This may be where the employee is the primary carer or is the only person who can help in an emergency; for example, an aunt who lives nearby who the employee looks after outside work falls and breaks a leg, where the employee is closest on hand at the time of the fall.

Dependant care leave

An employee has a right to take a reasonable amount of time off work to take necessary action to look after a dependant and deal with family emergencies. This right to dependant care leave (DCL) does not include an entitlement to pay so whether or not an employee will be paid is left to the contract of employment.

Employees do not have to complete a qualifying period in order to be able to take time off in an emergency. They are entitled to this right from day one of starting their job.

Employees must tell their employer, as soon as practicable, the reason for their absence and how long they expect to be away from work.

There may be exceptional circumstances where an employee returns to work before it was possible to contact the employer, but they should still tell the employer the reason for the absence on returning.

It is not necessary for an employee to give notice in writing.

Employers who think that an employee is abusing the right to time off should deal with the situation according to their normal disciplinary procedures.

Protection from dismissal and detriment

Employees are protected from being penalised or dismissed because they have taken, or have sought to take, time off under their right to Dependant Care Leave. For example, someone who is moved to lower grade work because they have exercised this right would be able to make a complaint that they have suffered a detriment.

The term 'detriment' can cover a wide range of discriminatory actions, such as denial of promotion, facilities or training opportunities which the employer would otherwise have offered or made available.

An employee who believes they have been unreasonably refused time off or has suffered a detriment for taking or seeking to take time off, should first seek to resolve the dispute by mutual agreement with their employer - perhaps through the business's own grievance or appeals procedure where one exists.

Family emergencies

This right enables employees to take action which is necessary to deal with an unexpected or sudden problem concerning a dependant, and make any necessary longer term arrangements.

If a dependant falls ill, or has been injured or assaulted

The illness or injury need not necessarily be serious or life-threatening, and may be mental or physical. The illness or injury may be a result of a deterioration of an existing condition; for example, a dependant may be suffering from a nervous breakdown. They may not require full-time care, but there may be occasions where their condition deteriorates, and their partner or parent, son or daughter, needs to take time off work in consequence. The right to time off is available where a dependant has been assaulted but is uninjured; for example, when a dependant has been a victim of a mugging incident, but has not been physically hurt, the employee can take time off work if necessary to comfort or help the victim.

When a dependant is having a baby

Where necessary, an employee can take time off to assist a dependant when she is having a baby. This does not include taking time off after the birth to care for the child - see Parental Leave.

Longer term care arrangements

Where a dependant needs to be cared for because of an illness or injury, the employee can take time off work to make longer term care arrangements. This might mean making arrangements to employ a temporary carer or taking a sick child to stay with relatives.

To deal with a death of a dependant

When a dependant dies, an employee can take time off to make funeral arrangements, as well as to attend the funeral. If the funeral is overseas, then the employer and employee will need to agree a length of absence which is reasonable in these circumstances.

Disruption to a dependant's care

Time off can be taken where the normal carer of the dependant is unexpectedly absent; for example, a childminder or nurse may fail to turn up as arranged, or the nursery or nursing home may close unexpectedly.

Incidents during school hours

An employee can take time off to deal with a serious incident involving their child during school hours. For example, if the child has been involved in a fight, is distressed, has been injured on a school trip or is being suspended from school.

Frequently asked questions

Q: Can both parents take time off work if their child falls ill?

A: There may be times when both parents want to take time off work under this right and it may be necessary for them to do so. Employers and employees need to adopt a common-sense approach depending on the circumstances of the situation. Both parents need to take time off if their child has had a serious accident, but it is unlikely to be necessary for both parents to be absent from work if the childminder fails to turn up.

Q: Can an employee take time off work if a boiler bursts?

A: No. Time off for emergencies which are not covered by this right is a contractual matter between an employer and employee.

Q: What happens if the employee needs longer time off, or knows in advance that the problem is going to arise?

A: The dependant care leave right is generally for unexpected matters. Although there have been guidelines from the Employment Appeals Tribunal which suggest that unexpected difficulties that were known about for 14 days will still entitle a mother to dependant care leave, employers should encourage their employees to ask for leave in the usual way if they know in advance that they are going to need time off. This may involve someone taking annual leave or some other form of leave if the employer provides it. Or, if the reason they need leave relates to their child then they may be entitled to take Parental Leave.

Q: Does an employer need to keep records of time off taken under this right?

A: Employers are not required to keep records of time off taken under this right, although may want to do so for their own purposes.

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