Monday 20 May 2019

The working parent dilemma: Trying to juggle work when your child is sick

Trying to juggle work when your child is sick can be a major headache. Arlene Harris talks to parents about how to manage this balancing act

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While being a parent is one of life's greatest joys, it can also be exhausting and emotional. So although many people, like myself, are lucky enough to either work from home or be a full-time parent, for those who go out to work, combining these two roles can be difficult.

Firstly there is the wrench of leaving your child when they are young and the fear of missing out on precious moments, then there is the undeniable mountain of extra chores to be faced in the evening. But perhaps the most problematic issue for working parents is how to tread the fine line between being diligent and ever-present at work and being there for your child when they are ill or have time off school.

There are, of course, guidelines in place which set out very clearly what parents are entitled to, but some feel like their chances of promotion are put in jeopardy every time they need to leave work early to take their toddler (or teenager) to the doctor.

Emma Moloney believes she is 'skating on very thin ice' at the moment with her employer as she has needed to take several days off work over the past couple of months due to one or other of her children being sick.

"Since Christmas I have probably taken about 10 days off work in order to look after the kids," she says. "My daughter had a tummy bug for two days in January and then when she got better both of the boys developed the same thing in succession so I had to take further time off. My husband took as many days as he could off, but his job involves a lot of travel so it's more difficult for him to just take a day off at short notice.

"My boss was fine about it in January - but we've had several other issues since then. All of the kids got a chest infection and were off for several days and then my youngest son got injured during a football game, so I had leave work one morning to collect him and bring him to the doctor."

As well as the cumulative sick days, the mother-of-three says the amount of training days taken by her children's schools makes her life difficult.

"The kids go to schools and each one has had a full day off due to staff training in the past month," says the Dublin woman. "This makes me so mad - why can't they train during their long holidays? I feel as if I am on probation at work and every time I get a call on my mobile, I'm praying it's not something which will require me to take time off. My boss is pretty patient, but she doesn't take much time off herself and I feel she doesn't understand my predicament. I can tell she is beginning to think that I'm not taking my job seriously but I don't want to have to start talking about my rights as I think it will make for a very difficult environment at work. I think employers should try to be more understanding - and teachers should not be allowed to have training days during school time."

Bridget O'Dea is mum to eight-year-old James who suffers with a rare medical condition, resulting in the need to take time off work on a regular basis. But unlike Emma, the Kilkenny woman says her employers couldn't be more supportive.

"I've been working with Purcell Masterson for six years but went to a different company in 2015 before returning back after a year," says the PR director. "A big factor in my return to PM was because of James' medical condition, Cystinosis, which can be really unpredictable and the flexibility offered to me by the managing director here allows me to also do my job as a mother and carer.

"Outside of normal holidays, I have to take time off for hospital appointments and the sick days which come with Cystinosis and there are also other everyday things which can pop up unexpectedly. My child will always come first and because of the loyalty my employer has shown me over the years, my job comes second."

But while her son always comes first, the mother-of-one says the flexibility allowed by her employer has ensured she is a very loyal employee.

"John (the MD) and I know that if I need to look after something in relation to James, it isn't even a question - I am told to just go and do it," she says. "But (equally) he and the team know that I'm always on-call for the company. Even during hospital appointments, I am available on the phone to the office and clients. As much as the company gives me, I try and return it ten-fold because I know that I am in an extremely fortunate situation. It helps that I love my job and there is never a dull moment - a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday routine in this line of work isn't possible anyway.

"If I didn't have this flexibility I would have to make the choice to be a full-time carer and not work at all - but that wouldn't be for me. It's important to not let a medical condition determine and control your life, where possible. Working adds normality to my life and James' as it doesn't let Cystinosis consume everything, which it so easily could if we allowed it to. It isn't always easy, but with open communication between John and myself, we make it work."

Currently one in nine people across the country are in a similar situation to Bridget - juggling paid employment with a caring role - and Family Carers Ireland, the voice for 355,000 family carers, are asking companies to join them in supporting working carers. Those who are termed "working carers" have a more positive attitude towards both work and life. And people who are accommodated at work to care for a family member have an enhanced ability to cope at work and at home.

Catherine Cox, Head of Communications and Carer Engagement with Family Carers Ireland, says, "Our project highlights the importance of ensuring that working carers feel valued and cared for within their own work environments. By offering greater flexibility and support to employees juggling paid employment and family caring, employers could significantly reduce costs caused by staff turnover, absenteeism and stress."

Michael Hanrahan says this new project from FCI could be hugely beneficial to parents like himself and his wife Ann, whose six-year-old daughter has frequent medical appointments which require one or other of them to take time off work.

"It would be great if employers could be more understanding of parents who may need to take extra time off work," says the father-of-three. "We don't do it because we like skiving off and for the most part, more than make up for it when we are back at work. But sometimes you can be made to feel like you are not pulling your weight, when in fact you are tearing yourself in two trying to be the best parent and the best employee.

"Between myself and my wife, we try to split the amount of leave we take to look after the kids when they are sick, have an appointment or the school is closed, but it isn't always easy. I know we have rights but it would be great if employers understood that some flexibility is needed when it comes to parenting - without having to start talking in legal jargon."

According to a spokesperson for the Workplace Relations Commission an employee is entitled to paid leave for urgent family reasons or if a child, spouse, partner, sibling, parent, grandparent or someone else who relies on the employee as a carer becomes sick or are injured.

"The employee is entitled to force majeure (paid) leave only if their presence with the ill or injured person is indispensable," she says. "During an absence on force majeure leave, an employee is regarded as being employed and keeps all of their employment rights.

"The legislation does not exclude people on CE schemes from availing of force majeure leave once the general conditions and any other specific requirements under the legislation are met. But this leave cannot be treated a part of any other to which the employee is entitled."

Taking leave

● Employees may not take more than 3 days of force majeure leave in any 12 consecutive months, or 5 days in any 36 consecutive months. 

● Absence for part of a day is counted as one day of force majeure leave.

● Employees and employers are entitled to refer a dispute about an entitlement under the Acts to the Workplace Relations Commission.

● Disputes concerning the dismissal of employees are dealt with under the provisions of the Unfair Dismissals Acts, 1977 to 1993. An employer or employee may appeal the Adjudication Officer's decision to the Labour Court.

● Each parent is entitled to 18 weeks parental leave for each child born or adopted on or after the June 3, 1996. The leave must be taken before the child reaches eight years of age (except in case of children with disabilities or long-term illness where it is up to the 16th birthday), except in certain circumstances in the case of an adopted child.

● Parental leave is an unpaid leave.

● Where an employee qualifies for parental leave in respect of more than one child, the employee may not take more than 18 weeks' parental leave in any 12-month period, unless the employer agrees otherwise. However, this restriction does not apply in the case of children of a multiple birth.

For more information visit workplacerelations.ie or contact the information line lo-call service on 1890 80 80 90 or 059 917 8990.

Irish Independent

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