If an employee has a child at a school or nursery that is closed due to, for example, severe weather or pandemic flu, must the employee be given time off if he or she cannot arrange childcare?

Employees have a statutory right to a reasonable period of unpaid time off to care for dependants under s.57A of the Employment Rights Act 1996. A "dependant" for the purposes of this right is a spouse, civil partner, child, parent or person who lives in the same household as the employee (other than as an employee, tenant, lodger or boarder). The right applies where an employee needs to take time off work to take necessary action because of the unexpected disruption or termination of arrangements for the care of a dependant. This will apply where schools or nurseries close due to severe weather or during a flu pandemic, for example. However, the right is limited to sufficient time off to deal with the immediate issues and sort out longer-term arrangements if necessary, although how long is reasonable is a question of fact and degree in each case. The employee must inform the employer of the reason for the absence as soon as reasonably possible and of how long he or she anticipates the absence will last.

An employee who is unreasonably refused time off in accordance with the right can complain to an employment tribunal and, if successful, may be awarded compensation. Any dismissal of an employee connected with the fact that he or she exercised this right will be automatically unfair, and the employee will be entitled to bring a claim whether or not he or she meets the service requirement for unfair dismissal claims.