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When Alice Thompson, a high-ranking real estate agent, refused her request to refuse a four-day week, and to leave at 17:00 at 18:00 rather than pick up her baby daughter at the nursery at 18:00, she shocked.
“I wanted to continue my career building what I thought was a bright future in that field,” said Thompson, who earned £ 120,000 a year when she first joined Manors, a London real estate agency. .
‘I thought I spent so much and so much time and energy building the business, and I did not have to choose between a career and a family.
Thompson, 36, filed the request for flexibility while planning her return from maternity leave at the end of 2019, believing the arrangement would suit the business “and mean I can still get older”.
After her request was denied, she resigned and sued her former employer. Last month, she was awarded £ 184,961 by a labor tribunal.
The judge ruled that there was indirect sex discrimination and compensation was awarded for loss of earnings, pension contributions and damage to feelings. Manors did not respond to requests for comment.
Her case and other recent rulings are helping to change the legal landscape, making it harder for UK employers to refuse flexible work requests, lawyers say, especially after employees proved they could work successfully from home during the coronavirus pandemic .
The government announced last month that employees will be able to ask for a change in the structure of their work from the first day of starting a new role – rather than after at least 26 weeks under current rules. The statutory right to request variable hours comes from the Employment Rights Act 1996 and Flexible Work Regulations 2014.
But the rule change does not mean that employers have to accept automatically. Companies can refuse a request on one of eight grounds, including the inability to reorganize work among existing staff.
A poll by the Trades Union Congress in 2019, a federation of unions in England and Wales, shows that one in three requests for flexible work has been rejected by employers.
Lawyers have said recent rulings underline that companies themselves must show flexibility or face the risk of tribunal claims.
In June, the Court of Appeal ruled in favor of a claim by Gemma Dobson, a community nurse and mother of three children, including two with disabilities.
Her employer North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust wanted to change her shift pattern and include weekend work. She was fired after saying she could not do the new hours because of her caring responsibilities, and filed a lawsuit over indirect discrimination and unfair dismissal.
Judge Akhlaq Choudhury ruled in her favor and concluded that in future cases employers should take into account the ‘inequality between childcare’, namely that women carry a greater burden of responsibilities than children, which affects their ability to work certain hours. to work, may limit. .
Last month, bookkeeper Catherine Henderson was awarded £ 13,080 by a Scottish labor court, which has a separate legal system for England and Wales.
The court found that the main reason for her dismissal by the former employer AccountNets Ltd was that she had taken time to look after a sick child, a violation of Section 99 of the Scottish Labor Law 1999. English law has’ a similar provision.
Last month, Chloe Daly, a flight attendant, was awarded £ 38,741 by the East London Labor Tribunal, which found that there was indirect gender discrimination when BA Cityflyer, part of British Airways, refused her request for reduced hours and imposed working days thereafter. has. the birth of her baby.
Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant then Screwed, a charity that supports pregnant women and parents, acknowledges that these cases give hope and confidence to staff to ask what they want. “But we have recently seen an increase in people contacting our helpline and saying that their requests for flexibility are being rejected,” she added.
Jo Keddie, senior partner at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, said of the Thompson case: ‘It is a timely reminder that employers will have to do more than rely on the statutory reasons for refusing a flexible work request.
‘In addition, the wise consideration must be given to the disproportionate impact that a refusal may have on specific groups that share protected characteristics, such as working mothers.
She said rejecting such requests would be more difficult for businesses that have successfully changed their hours during the restrictions.
Jane Van Zyl, CEO of Working Families, a charity, said: ‘The rulings show employers that it costs money to refuse [to implement or discuss] flexible work and if not handled properly, it can have a negative impact on the business.
“Flexible work is not equal to work from home – it is only a part of it, and there is, for example, almost no work that can be done flexibly.”
Thompson has no regrets about her case. “I have had so many women come to me in the same situation,” she says. ‘I did it for my daughter and the next generation. It happens to us and therefore we can not just turn around and accept it. ”