Leave is an often misunderstood subject for employers, but one of the most common mistakes is confusing taking time off for dependents with emergency leave. Employees are entitled to have time off in the event of an emergency, or due to unforeseen circumstances, but it must involve a dependent – here’s why…

The difference between the two types of leave outlined above is that employees don’t have a legislative right to time off for general emergencies, such as a flood at their home for example – but time off for dependents is a statutory right available to all employees, from the first day of their employment.

Employees may also have the right to take time off for other emergency reasons if the employer decides to allow this – any ‘emergency leave’ policy should be included in their contract of employment.

The finer details

Employees only have a right to take a reasonable amount of time off for dependents, and there’s no legal right to be paid for it unless their contract states otherwise. The problem is that legislation doesn’t give an indication as to what’s classed as ‘reasonable’.

Reasonable leave depends on the type of emergency, and can vary from one situation to another. Should an emergency relating to a dependent arise, the employee must inform their employer that they need time off as soon as is reasonably practicable, and give an indication of how much time they envisage needing.

Time off in these circumstances is usually to deal with matters such as:

  • Childcare arrangements which have fallen through
  • Taking a dependent to hospital in an emergency
  • The death of a dependent

What isn’t covered?

This entitlement is not intended to be used when employees knew about the situation beforehand, such as a pre-scheduled hospital appointment. In those cases, employers should agree with employees how this time off will be covered e.g. annual leave or using time off in lieu.

Similarly, time off for dependents doesn’t cover situations which arise after the emergency, such as looking after a sick child – in which case it can only be used in order to arrange replacement childcare. If the employee needs to take time off to look after their child, this should generally be covered by annual leave, parental leave or some other means.

Definition of a dependent

A dependent has to be an immediate member of family, such as:

  • Spouse
  • Civil partner
  • Child
  • Grandchild
  • Parent
  • Step-parent
  • Sibling

That said, it can also include someone who depends on the employee in the event of emergencies –such as an elderly neighbour.

There’s no legal limit on the amount of time to be taken in this way, but if it begins to reach an unacceptable limit, the employer should discuss this with the employee in order to identify if there’s some other type of support that can be offered in order to get them back to work.