Parental leave: a guide

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parental-leave-guideThings with a little one don’t always go to plan. Parents will require some time off to look after their children, when they have no alternative childcare or when their son or daughter is ill. As well as a parent’s entitlement to reasonable time of work when their child is ill, there’s a further entitlement that offers an extended period of time off to benefit the child’s welfare.

This additional time off comes under the title of parental leave, which is available for parents of children up to 18 years of age.

What is parental leave?

Parental leave is an employee entitlement. It gives employees up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave, for a child under 18 years old. These 18 weeks might be taken in bulk immediately after the birth or adoption of a child, and could be added on to maternity leave for women. They don’t need to be taken immediately, so can be used at any time up to a child’s 18th birthday.

Most employers will request at least 21 days’ notice before parental leave is taken. Employees might be able to give this verbally, but may need to put the request in writing.

Who is entitled to parental leave?

Parental leave is an entitlement for employees that have been with their current employer for at least a full year. It can be taken any time up until the child’s 18th birthday. If an employer hasn’t accrued a year of service at the time of their child’s birth, then they’ll still receive the entitlement once their one year work anniversary has passed.

If the plan is to take parental leave immediately after birth or adoption, then notice should be provided at least 21 days before the beginning of the baby’s ‘due week’ or adoption placement week, or as soon as possible if the child arrives prematurely.

Don’t get confused!

Parental leave is not the same as shared parental leave, which entitles new parents to share their time off after their baby is born or adopted, in whatever configuration they choose.

What are the restrictions on parental leave?

Parental leave is intended to be taken in weekly blocks, not as a day off here and there. In exceptional circumstances, this is something that an employer can choose to be flexible about. Employers have a right to postpone parental leave by up to six months, if there’s a good reason for doing so – this doesn’t apply if:

  • the leave is immediately following a birth or adoption
  • the postponement would push the leave past the child’s 18th birthday

Employees can choose to take their weeks as 18 separate unpaid breaks from work, or in larger blocks. The law states that employees can take up to 4 weeks of parental leave in an individual year, but there’s nothing to stop an employer from breaking that rule if it suits – it’s there for the protection of employers and other workers, not as a strict limit.

Whilst on parental leave, an employee remains under their current terms of contract with all of the benefits and responsibilities that this includes.

It’s also important to know that a ‘week’ isn’t a set period of 5 or 7 days. If an employee works on a Monday, Tuesday and Saturday then this counts as their ‘week’. If working hours change year by year, the parental leave entitlement simply keeps up with their current schedule.

On top of everything else, remember that parental leave is linked to a child and not a job. If an employee has already used some parental leave with one company, they don’t get that entitlement back when they move to another.

Who is entitled to parental leave?

An employee is entitled to parental leave if they’re a named parent on a birth or adoption certificate. Foster parents aren’t covered under this entitlement. Contractors, agency workers and self-employed people are also exempt.

Again, there’s some flexibility. If an employer wants to extend parental leave to a wider range of workers, such as foster parents, then they do have the option to do so.

How might parental leave be used?

The law protects the rights of parents to take unpaid time off if their child is ill, and they need to act as a carer. Employees don’t need to worry about saving parental leave for a worst case scenario. Instead, it might be used for:

  • Settling into life as a new family, with a newborn baby or adopted child.
  • Adapting to an expanding family, when an older child might need some extra time and attention to adjust to a sibling’s arrival.
  • Managing childcare and making future arrangements, if an existing childcare situation needs to be changed.
  • Spending more time with family members, such as grandparents.
  • Spending more time as a family, or as one parent and a child (or children).
  • Taking time off for other issues related to a child’s welfare, for example if a child is struggling to cope with a family member’s death or is experiencing stress or being bullied.

Parental leave ideally shouldn’t be used for short-term time off, such as a dentist visit or school sports day. Instead an employee should ask for flexible working hours, or should use paid holiday.

There are no strict rules about what parental leave should and shouldn’t be taken for. It’s up to an employee to decide what they consider to be a valid and worthwhile use of their unpaid time off. Each family will have unique issues relating to a child’s welfare, and it’s in an employer’s interest to be as flexible as possible. Employees on parental leave have protections in place, to avoid any discrimination or unfair dismissal.

Parental leave is often ‘masked’ under mentions of shared parental leave, maternity leave and paternity leave. You might find that many of your friends and colleagues don’t even know about this entitlement!

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