Mums have picked up the majority of childcare while nurseries and schools have been closed – and many have had to sacrifice work hours and pay to do so. When the furlough schemes ends in October, the crisis in the childcare sector will continue. What will working mums do?
Why is this crisis different to other recessions?
Covid-19 has impacted men and women differently. In terms of the direct health impact, men appear to be at much higher risk than women. But Covid-19 is not just a health crisis, it is a social and economic crisis and it is these areas where women appear to be more acutely impacted than men.
The economic impacts of this crisis on women are very different to previous recessions, in large part due to the disruption to schools and childcare.
At the start of lockdown, the government took the decision to close schools and childcare settings to all but children of key workers to contain the spread of Covid-19. Meanwhile grandparents, friends and family were not allowed to provide informal childcare due to the risk of exposure to the virus and to stop its spread. This left childcare duties solely to parents, causing huge disruption to working parents’ lives.
Why is this impacting working mums so badly?
Due to the unequal division of care in households, women have been doing two-thirds more childcare each day than men. Parents have no right to paid leave and only have the right to request flexible work once they have been in their job for 26 weeks. In practice,TUC research has shown one in three requests for flexible work are turned down by an employer.
This has inevitably taken its toll on mums’ jobs and incomes, with many being forced to reduce their hours, take unpaid leave, to request furlough or to leave their job in order to cope.
Single parents have faced some of the biggest challenges. In the UK, 90% of single parent families are headed by a woman. Without access to paid leave and flexibility at work from their employers, many single parents have been forced to leave their jobs or reduce their hours at work to care for their children. When the house is dependant on one income, the impact can be catastrophic.
What is causing the crisis?
Since March 21, early years settings and schools have been allowed to open to vulnerable children and those with a parent identified as a key worker. However, the TUC has learnt that even key workers have struggled to access childcare.
67 percent of early years providers have had to temporarily close. Mums have also reported problems with inconsistent definitions of key worker being applied, with some being turned away from provision despite working in the NHS, retail and social care.
For workers not with defined key worker status, lockdown presented huge challenges. Parents working from home could no longer look to any outside support and have become full-time carers as well as workers.
On 1st June, the government began partially reopening schools and childcare settings to families outside of the key worker status, but on a limited basis. Primary schools were opened to children in reception and years 1 and 6. Childcare providers have reopened but many are at 37% capacity to comply with social distancing guidelines, meaning most children have continued to stay at home.
What is the current situation?
As lockdown measures ease and the government encourages us back to the office, parents have been left with barely any summer holiday provision. The usual summer holiday play schemes that parents rely on are either closed, running at lower capacity or for shorter hours.
In September, schools should reopen but many will do so without the before and after school clubs that mums need in order to work a typical 8-hour day, not including time to commute to and from work. NHS Track and Trace measures and local lockdowns may require childcare providers and schools to shut down at very short notice following an outbreak, leaving parents with no childcare at all for 14 days.
Childcare providers are likely to continue to run at lower capacity than usual. This is putting them under huge financial pressure and is not sustainable in the long-term. As many as one in four do not think they will be open by Christmas and this number rises for providers in deprived areas.
Not having enough childcare for working parents’ risks reversing decades of progress women have made in the labour market and increasing the gender pay gap. It also risks damaging our national economic productivity.
What can trade union reps do?
Our trade union reps have worked tirelessly throughout this crisis and are negotiating hard with employers to implement family-friendly policies and practices in the Covid-19 context.
In response to demands for a better work-life balance, and in a bid to reap the benefits of a more engaged workforce, employers are taking this opportunity to reset and redesign the ways they work. Reps are working hard to support employers to do this and to ensure that the process of organisational change has good communication at its the core.
Here are 3 practical steps reps can take in their workplace:
- Assess whether current policies effectively support parents and identify the most pressing needs of working parents in your workplace.
- Secure flexible working agreements. Flexible work can include predictability about working hours, control over working patterns, adjustments to the working day to accommodate new caring responsibilities, remote working or term-time or compressed hours.
- Ensure working parents know their rights around parental leave, flexible working and the right to fair treatment and can assert them.
What can the government do?
There are three key actions working parents need the government to take immediately:
- Protect women’s incomes: A more limited form of the job retention scheme should remain in place beyond October to support parents who are unable to return to work because of childcare responsibilities and enable them to remain on it until schools and childcare settings are fully reopened.
- Prevent a large-scale collapse of the childcare sector: Give an urgent cash injection to the childcare sector to ensure it remains sustainable and target additional funding at provision supporting children from low income households
- Make flexible work the default: give all workers a day one right to flexible work and a duty on employers to advertise roles as flexible.
More widely, a strategy is needed to ensure that working mums, particularly those on the lowest pay and whose work is outside the home, are not left facing months of unemployment as a result of the childcare crisis that Covid-19 continues to cause.