If you have a family emergency, do you have the right to time off?
In many cases, employees now have the right to take time off work to deal with an emergency involving someone who depends on them.
Your husband, wife, partner, child, parent, or someone living with you as part of your family can all be considered as depending on you. Others who rely solely on you for help in an emergency may also qualify.
So what counts as an emergency?
An emergency is when someone who depends on you:
- is ill and needs your help
- is involved in an accident or assaulted
- needs you to arrange their longer term care
- needs you to deal with an unexpected disruption or breakdown in care, such as a childminder or nurse failing to turn up
- goes into labour.
You can also take time off if a dependant dies and you need to make funeral arrangements or attend the funeral.
What if I know in advance that the problem is going to arise?
The legal right only covers emergencies. If you know beforehand that you’re going to need time off, you may be able to arrange this with your employer by taking another form of leave. If it’s your child that’s involved, you may be entitled to a period of parental leave.
How much time can I take off?
As long as it takes to deal with the immediate emergency. For example, if your child falls ill, you can take enough time off to deal with their initial needs, such as taking them to the doctor and arranging for their care. But you’ll need to make other arrangements if you want to stay off work longer to care for them yourself.
You can take a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off, but the legislation places no limits on the time off an employee is entitled to; however in the vast majority of cases this should be no more than a few hours or a day or two (it depends on the nature of the problem), to deal with the immediate crisis. In Cortest v O’Toole the Tribunal found that an employee who took a month off to care for her child wasn’t covered by the right to time off for dependants, as the period was too long
Will I be paid?
There is no legal obligation for your employer to pay you for the time you take off. Your employer may, however, offer some paid time off for emergencies in your employment contract.
How much notice do I have to give my employer?
You must tell your employer as soon as possible why you’re away from work and how long you expect to be off.
In the 2014 case of Ellis v Ratcliff Palfinger Limited an Employment Tribunal confirmed that Employees are entitled to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to take necessary action to deal with particular situations affecting their dependents. However, the right to time off only applies if the employee tells their employer both the reasons for the absence as soon as is reasonably practicable to do so and how long they expect to be away from work.
Mr Ellis took his heavily pregnant partner to hospital at first due to illness on 6 February and then because she had been admitted to give birth on 7 February. The Tribunal found that he had failed to tell his employer the reason for his absence as soon as it was reasonably practical to do so, and here therefore was not automatically unfairly dismissed for exercising this right.
Mr Ellis had failed to telephone his employer at all on 7 February, or attend work, and it was not until the evening of 8 February that he left a message that he wouldn’t be in work on 9 February after receiving a text to contact the office. He claimed his mobile wasn’t charged and he couldn’t remember his employer’s number. He had already received a final written warning because of attendance issues, which was still current.
Can an employer ‘manage’ your absence if it relates to time off for dependants?
A genuine absence that’s recorded as time off for dependants should not be counted against an employee in any way, unless there’s doubt that the request is genuine. In Naisbett v Npower Limited, Ms Naisbett was given a warning for seven days absence relating to time off for dependants (in 12 months) and this amounted to a detriment and the Tribunal awarded her compensation.
Parental Bereavement Leave coming in 2020
This new law received royal assent in September 2018 and is likely to come into force in 2020. It’ll allow employees entitlement to two weeks leave following the death of a child under the age of 18, which will be paid at the statutory rate (e.g. as paternity pay).
This right will be available from day one and will also apply to a parent suffering a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy. Regulations are yet to be published, which will provide more detail, but we’ll update this as we know more.
If you are an Employer and need ongoing professional help with any staff/freelance issues then talk to Lesley at The HR Kiosk (click here) – a Human Resources Consultancy for small businesses – you can retain us for as much time as you need.
Please note that the advice given on this website and by our Advisors is guidance only and cannot be taken as an authoritative interpretation of the law. It can also not be seen as specific advice for individual cases. Please also note that there are differences in legislation in Northern Ireland.