Family-friendly employment laws – a burden or a benefit?

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New regulations governing flexible working requests came into force in June, allowing any employee to request a change in their working pattern. Previously only parents and carers could ask for flexible working, but the new rules mean that any employee with over 26 weeks’ service can apply for a change in their hours.

Under the regulations, employers are obliged to consider each request in a reasonable manner and within a reasonable time-frame – leaving smallerbusinesses exposed, said Craig Bennison, head of litigation to Aberdeen-based Empire.

“Flexible working is something we would all probably aspire to,” he said, “however suddenly having to change employees’ working hours could prove to be a logistical – and financial – nightmare.

“Any employee with 26 weeks’ service can ask for flexible working, and the business has to provide a very good case for refusing the request – or face a hefty fine. However, smaller firms are worried that faced with multiple requests, they may have to choose which job roles are more suited to flexible working, leading to potential discrimination claims.

“Imagine a team which all wants to take the school holidays off. Or colleagues who all want Mondays free. Very few businesses would be able to accommodate these requests without additional recruitment and subsequent training costs. However, if an employer cannot give a valid reason to refuse a request, they could be fined at a rate of 8 weeks of the employee’s wages.”

The days of a 9-5, five day week look numbered as further legislation comes into place over the next year. Increasing flexibility on antenatal appointments, including allowing expectant fathers to take unpaid leave to attend two six-hour antenatal classes with their partner, has now come into force and new rules on shared parental leave in April 2015 will allow parents to share up to 50 weeks’ leave, in addition to the mother’s right to maternity leave.

“The changes are aimed at encouraging more family-friendly workplaces,” Mr Bennison explained. “The government predicts huge economic benefits of flexible working, as happier workers are thought to be healthier and more effective.

“However, accommodating one employee’s request for time to care for grandchildren and another’s plan to recover from a weekend’s partying could be challenging,” he warned.

Other recent changes include a revision to the minimum wage, which came into effect on 1 October. The Adult rate (over 21 years old) now sits at £6.50 per hour, with the Development rate (18-20 year olds) at £5.13 per hour, the Young Workers rate (16-17 year olds) at £3.79 per hour and the apprentice rate at£2.73 per hour.

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