Campaigning for a right to compassionate leave

As I was getting my daughter ready for nursery this morning I listened to the heartbreaking story of the mother campaigning for a change in the law to give parents a right to time off for the death of a child. If my little girl’s general loveliness was not enough to make me realise how lucky I am to have her, then this tragic tale certainly was.

In case you didn’t hear it, Lucy Herd lost her 23-month-old son when he drowned in the garden pond.  She had only taken her eyes off him for a short moment, but it was enough.  As if the pain of her loss wasn’t enough, the little boy’s father was only allowed three days off from work to grieve, one of which had to be the funeral.

I had to check myself at that point, three days off for the death of a child, is that all, seriously?  You would imagine that even the most insensitive employer would have a little more compassion, but apparently not, and the law doesn’t help.  There is, incredibly, no legal right to compassionate leave due to bereavement, only ‘reasonable time off’ to make funeral arrangements and attend the funeral.

There is also no legal definition for 'reasonable' and some people’s definition differs significantly from what most of us would expect.  In an ideal world, employers showing this level of callousness wouldn’t be able to attract any employees to work for them, but as we are all well aware, we don’t.

David Cameron took two weeks off following the death of his son in 2009, and was eased slowly back into his schedule when he returned.  Lucy Herd is hoping that she can persuade Parliament to vote to grant all grieving parents at least four weeks off work.

Four weeks isn’t a lot, and it looks pretty mean when compared with the 12 months off parents can take on the birth of a new baby, but it’s a heck of a lot more than three days, which I imagine is barely enough to get you to a point where you can even get out of bed.

The problem, as Lucy Herd has found out, is that employment rights are always weighed against money, and money invariably wins.  I suppose this is understandable on one level, given the economic pickle we are in, but I don’t remember it being downtrodden, sick or bereaved workers that got us into this mess.

The most unscrupulous employers, as well as making a song and dance about all the ‘red tape’ they have to deal with and how much it’s costing them, rely on employees either not knowing their rights or not being empowered enough to do anything about enforcing them.

Some of the most abused of our employment rights concern  maternity, which is hardly surprising as pregnant women bringing yet more children into the world are the bane of many an employer’s life.  It is probably the only form of discrimination still seen as ‘acceptable’ by many and it is not unusual to hear employers talk quite openly about how they will avoid recruiting pregnant women or even those of a child-bearing age.

This is illegal, even if the job they are applying for is a fixed-term contract, yes even for maternity cover, and they won’t be able to complete the full term because they are pregnant.

Unbelievably, according to the advice and campaigning group Maternity Action, 30,000 women each year lost their jobs because of pregnancy discrimination and it’s getting worse thanks to the economic downturn.  For every large payout made to a City executive that hits the headlines, there are thousands, of low-paid women either sacked or bullied into resigning and who can’t afford legal advice.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, and reflecting Lucy Herd’s experience, many employers either don’t understand or flagrantly abuse the rules regarding women and their partners who suffer the death of a child or a miscarriage.  If this happens before 24 weeks, the sick leave policy applies; afterwards and the mother is entitled to maternity leave.

But how many employers know this, or care?  Scrolling through the message boards on sites like Netmums you can find far too many stories about employers trying to force women back to work early after they’ve had a stillborn baby.   I can’t imagine many things more insensitive, but then I don’t just see people as economic units.

There are, obviously, good employers out there, lots of them, who go above and beyond the letter of the law to ensure they retain the loyalty and goodwill of their employees.

When I miscarried at only nine weeks, my then employer could not have been more sympathetic and gave me as much time as I needed to recuperate  both physically and emotionally.  They were slightly less helpful when I actually had a baby, but hey, you can’t have everything.

It is about time that all employers realised they are important players in our whole social fabric, not just the time we spend working for them.  The strain put on Lucy Herd’s relationship following her son’s death and compounded by her partner having only three days off proved to be too much and they separated.

Broken homes, we are always being told, are a major source of society’s ills and certainly aren’t going to do much for the happiness index the prime minister is so keen on.  But how many other relationships have broken down because of the insensitivity and short sightedness of employers?

It seems, however, that some employers aren’t going to realise this on their own, or at all, and are only concerned with their own narrow interests.  This is why we need employment laws, because we can’t rely on employers to behave rationally on their own initiative.

Next time you hear someone going on about how employment legislation and time-consuming red tape are strangling business and hampering our economic recovery, remember Lucy Herd’s story and imagine it happened to you.  And then go and sign her petition for a decent amount of statutory bereavement leave.

Posted in: Employment law

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