Tackling the wrong kind of flexibility: the work of our legal helpline in 2014

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Amid the biggest living standards crisis in a generation, and with research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the London School of Economics suggesting that the Coalition’s tax and benefit reforms have hit families with children under five harder than any other household type, 2014 was another busy year for the Working Families helpline team.

Simon, a single parent working for a provider of services to the elderly, called the helpline after his employer refused his formal request to change his work pattern to accommodate an unavoidable change in his childcare. Although employed on a zero-hours contract, Simon had for several years worked five full days a week, including Saturday and Sunday. But now his childcare support had changed, Simon could no longer work weekends, and he was afraid he would have to give up his job.

Simon is one of 2,766 working parents and carers – 85 per cent of them women, and almost one in four a single parent – who telephoned or emailed the helpline in 2014. The helpline team provides free advice on key work-life balance rights such as maternity and paternity leave and pay, provides support on requesting and negotiating flexible working – or with contesting imposed changes to an existing working arrangement – and advises on challenging pregnancy, maternity or other discrimination at work and accessing relevant social security benefits and tax credits.

The team’s annual report, published today, shows that, despite some reduced capacity due to staff changes, and an increase in the proportion of callers requiring more than one interaction, the team advised and supported almost 200 more callers than in 2013. And, as in previous years, the most common issues raised by callers were: maternity leave and pay; benefits and tax credits; other maternity rights; flexible working; and pregnancy or maternity related discrimination.

With essential living costs having risen faster than wages in recent years, and childcare costs continuing to spiral upwards, many of those who contacted the helpline were simply struggling to find a way to make work pay.

Nicky called the helpline shortly after returning to work from maternity leave, because she was struggling with the cost of childcare for her six-months-old child. Nicky earns just over £20,000 per year, and her partner – an apprentice electrician – £15,000 per year. The helpline team was able to confirm that Nicky is receiving the right level of working tax credit, but Nicky feels she has no choice but to give up work to care for her child.

Many of the women on maternity leave who contacted the helpline team were finding it difficult to manage on the weekly statutory maternity pay of just £138.18, capped at below-inflation annual increases since 2013 and equal to just 60 per cent of the national minimum wage.

Jackie called the helpline while on maternity leave and receiving statutory maternity pay, because she wanted to take more than nine months’ maternity leave but simply couldn’t afford to take unpaid leave. The helpline team reports that this is a “very common call”, and that many women in low-paid jobs have little choice but to return to work at the end of statutory maternity pay.

Many others who called or emailed the helpline in 2014 were trying to adopt a flexible working pattern in response to a major change in their caring responsibilities, such as taking on the care of an elderly parent, relationship breakdown, or the onset of disability of a child or partner. And, in theory at least, this became easier from June 2014, with the extension to all employees of the right to request flexible working, previously limited to parents and carers. In the words of the then employment relations minister, Jo Swinson, “we want to see flexible working become the norm, not the exception”.

However, the helpline team report that, if there is one stand-out feature of their work in 2014, it is that the notion of flexible working is simply illusory for all too many of the parents and carers who contact the team for help.

The wrong kind of flexibility

In low-paid sectors like social care, retail, cleaning, and hospitality, hundreds of thousands of men and especially women work on zero-hours contracts and other ‘casualised’ forms of employment that offer little in the way of pay, guaranteed hours or job security.  And what Citizens Advice calls the “hyper-flexibility” of such jobs is all one way.

By their nature, such insecure jobs, with varying and unpredictable weekly hours, can result in significant variations in income, making it hard to arrange (or retain) childcare and disrupting social security payments. But they also make it very difficult if not impossible for workers to successfully request a change in their hours or working pattern to accommodate a change in their family circumstances, or to resist a problematic change in their hours or working pattern imposed by their employer.

For a refusal to work shorter, longer or simply different hours can easily lead to there being no hours at all. And the introduction of upfront tribunal fees in July 2013, unaffordable to many, has made it harder than it’s ever been to challenge any unlawful action on the part of the employer. In the months following the introduction of fees, claims for unfair dismissal fell by 65 per cent, and claims for sex or pregnancy discrimination fell by 80 per cent. In the words of one senior employment judge, it is “difficult to resist the conclusion that access to justice has been curtailed”.

Mandy had worked for a bank on a zero-hours contract for several months without any indication from her employer of dissatisfaction with her work. However, when Mandy informed her employer she was pregnant, her manager stated there had been complaints about her work. And, when Mandy challenged this, the manager changed the story to “you haven’t been working hard enough”. Mandy’s hours were then reduced to zero – in effect, she was summarily dismissed.

Similarly, Denise, employed on a zero-hours contract, had had her working hours substantially cut since she had taken time off for a pregnancy-related illness. When she had challenged her employer, pointing out that several new staff had been taken on, she was told “we need people we can rely on”. The helpline team advised Denise that her treatment amounted to pregnancy discrimination, but Denise said there was no way she could afford to pay the fees of £1,200 to pursue a tribunal claim.

Against this rather grim backdrop, the helpline team can – and frequently does – make a huge difference to the situation of individual callers. Good information and personalised advice empowers callers to make an informed decision about whether and how to negotiate with their employer, the most effective way to challenge unlawful treatment, or how to change their working pattern in such a way to maximise their income once benefit payments, tax credit awards and childcare costs are taken into account.

Evidence from the casework of the helpline team also informs the wider policy and campaigning activity of Working Families, including our ‘families and work’ manifesto for next month’s General Election. So we remain extremely grateful to the team’s key funders, Matrix Chambers and the Big Lottery Fund, and to our many other supporters who make the work of the team possible.

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