Many of us assume maternity rights are a given, but this is sadly not always the case. So, what are your employees’ rights, and what are your obligations as an employer?

Over the years, there have been an innumerable amount of cases in which women are discriminated against due to pregnancy and whilst the law is very clear about the right to care for your child and maintain your career, this hasn’t stopped some businesses making wildly illegal calls and even firing employees over their right to pregnancy.

Research recently published by the EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission) found that despite the majority of pregnant women (77 per cent) reporting possibly discriminatory behaviour, two-thirds (66 per cent) still said their employer supported their needs both as an expectant mother and a mother of a young child.

However, almost a third (32 per cent) reported that their needs were not willingly supported during or after having a baby. During pregnancy, 29 per cent reported they were refused flexible working hours, 28 per cent were denied additional rest and nearly a quarter (24 per cent) were not allowed to start later or finish earlier.

It also found that 19 per cent of mothers were influenced to stop breastfeeding or expressing milk at the workplace when returning to work and three-quarters of these stated impracticality and a lack of facilities forced them to either completely stop or start to express milk outside of working hours.

Last week, the currently pregnant MP Stella Creasy announced her intention to call for a change to the maternity rules for MPs, after arguing that the current system “forced a choice between being an MP and being a mum.”

It’s obvious that employers are still getting things wrong with regards to managing pregnancy and maternity at work. So what do you need to do as an employer?

What are your employees’ rights?

To qualify for maternity leave, an employee needs to tell you about her pregnancy by the 15th week before the Expected Week of Childbirth (EWC).

She then has the right to:

  • a maximum of 52 weeks’ maternity leave
  • up to 39 weeks’ statutory maternity pay (SMP), or maternity allowance if she doesn’t qualify for SMP
  • paid time off to attend antenatal appointments
  • return to work under the same terms and conditions

Types of maternity leave

Maternity leave can be made up of three types of time off:

  • Compulsory Maternity Leave:  the two weeks following the birth. As the name suggests, all new mothers must take this period of leave.
  • Ordinary Maternity Leave: the first 26 weeks of maternity leave. After OML, employees can return to their job exactly as before.
  • Additional Maternity Leave: the following 26 weeks of maternity leave. This is optional, and after AML an employee’s rights change slightly. She can be offered an equivalent role if your company is unable to give back her previous job.

The length and type of maternity leave will vary between companies, and between individuals. It helps to keep an open dialogue with your employee, since their plans may change throughout the course of the maternity leave period. Employees have the right to change their return date by giving eight weeks’ written notice.

Maternity Leave Pay

There are three main types of pay that an employee can receive during their maternity leave.

Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP)

This is payable for 39 weeks, as long as the mother has been continuously employed for 26 weeks by the 15th week before the EWC.

For the first six weeks, the value of SMP is 90% of average weekly earnings. For the following 33 weeks (if taken as leave), it is paid at the lower statutory level of £148.68 per week or 90% of the average weekly earnings, if this is lower.

Occupational Maternity Pay (OMP)

Your company may enhance the mother’s SMP with Occupational Maternity Pay. This is discretionary, and may have different conditions from SMP which should be available in writing. If this is something you are able to do as an employer, this is a great perk and one which is really valued by employees. Employees whose pay is not topped up may find themselves in a position where they need to return to work sooner than they wished for financial reason.

Maternity Allowance

Maternity Allowance is a state benefit paid to women who do not qualify for SMP. To qualify, they should have been employed for at least 26 weeks out of the 66 weeks preceding the EWC. Employees who are eligible for Maternity Allowance need to apply though the Job Centre.

Further points to consider

As an employer, you should have in place a maternity policy and equal opportunities policy so that your employees can be aware of all their rights. Make your employees aware of their rights and ensure your policies are communicated clearly and consistently.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) have recently warned that employers are not doing enough to protect pregnant women at work and have released new guidance to help businesses better support expectant employees and those who have recently given birth, advising employers to take steps such as supplying comfortable workstations, changing workloads or hours to reduce stress, varying start and finish times to make the commute easier, and allowing more breaks in order to protect the health of pregnant women.

It also advises on how best to support women returning to work after having a child, including if they are breastfeeding or expressing milk while at work.

Meet with employees regularly throughout their pregnancy and make a plan for their maternity leave, including how you will keep in touch, and their return, to demonstrate that they are a valued member of your team. Staying in touch throughout an employee’s maternity is vital in helping to manage their return to work. Include them in meetings and planning until they take their maternity leave, work with them on an individual plan that works for them, and consider phased returns and flexible working.

Employees can undertake work during their maternity for up to 10 days without it affecting their statutory maternity pay and this is a useful way to keep the employee up to date with the business. Upon an employee’s return to work you should offer as much support to help ease them back into their role and get them back up to speed, and make any necessary workplace changes.

An employee returning from maternity leave may request to change to a more flexible working pattern, so you also need to have in place a clear flexible working policy in order to handle these requests.  It is at your discretion as an employer whether you offer these arrangements or not, although you will need to handle each request fairly and give it due consideration to avoid potential claims.

If you have need support and advice with regards to managing maternity and pregnancy in the workplace, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today!


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