Let’s Talk: Maternity Rights

Finding out you’re pregnant and becoming a mum are defining moments in every woman’s life.

But regardless of what you do for living, it shouldn’t impact on your career.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a minefield for employees and employers alike.

Some bosses are keen to do their best for pregnant women and those returning from maternity leave, while others seemingly flout legislation without regard.

So, what can and can’t employers do, and what can you expect in the workplace as a pregnant woman and new mum?

HR consultant and founder of Opal People Solutions Louise McGeady answers all the burning questions.

Q: When do I have to inform my employer that I am pregnant?

A: Ideally, you should let your employer know that you are pregnant as soon as possible.

It’s important to advise your employer as:

· You may need time off work for antenatal care

· You may need protection from health and safety risks, and

· Your legal protection from less favourable treatment due to your pregnancy will only occur once your employer knows or suspects that you are pregnant.

In terms of establishing your rights to maternity leave and payment, you should notify your manager of your intention to apply for maternity leave by the end of the qualifying week which is defined as the 15th week before the Expected Week of Confinement (EWC).

It is advised to confirm your pregnancy in writing to your employer to establish a record of providing the information within the correct timeframe.

This however is not a legal requirement.

Q: What rights do I have as a pregnant woman in the workplace?

A: A pregnant woman in the workplace has legal employment rights which are designed to protect their health and safety and that of their expected child(ren), and their contractual terms and conditions of employment, protecting a pregnant woman from unlawful discrimination.

Rights include:

Maternity Leave – all pregnant employees, regardless of length of service, are entitled to 26-weeks Ordinary Maternity Leave (OML) and 26-weeks Additional Maternity Leave (AML), a total of 52 weeks maternity leave.

Maternity Pay – in order to qualify for maternity pay, employees must:

· Have 26-weeks continuous service at the Qualifying Week (QW)

· Still be pregnant or have given birth by the 11th week before the EWC

· Have stopped working because of pregnancy or birth

· Have average weekly earnings of not less than the Lower Earnings Limit during the QW

paid time off for antenatal care – you are entitled to reasonable paid time off for medical appointments. You should provide your manager with as much notice as possible and evidence of the appointment may need to be provided.

You are also entitled to protection from unfair treatment or dismissal – with the exception of remuneration whilst on maternity leave, all other terms and conditions of employment will continue to apply.

Q: My role is physically demanding and I am concerned about the risk to my baby, what can I expect from my employer?

A: Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, once the company is aware that the employee is pregnant, a risk assessment must be carried out for all expectant mothers as early in pregnancy as possible and at regular intervals throughout the pregnancy as appropriate.

An employer must protect from any workplace risk, for example:

· Lifting/carrying heavy loads

· Standing or sitting still for long lengths of time

· Exposure to infectious diseases

· Exposure to lead

· Exposure to toxic chemicals

· Work-related stress

· Workstations and posture

· Exposure to radioactive material

· Threat of violence in the workplace

· Long working hours

· Excessively noisy workplaces.

It is reasonable to expect an employer to conduct the following as recommended by HSE:

· Carry out a general risk assessment to assess the risks to the health and safety of all employees including women of child-bearing age and pregnant women.

· Assess any risks and reducing or removing them if possible.

· Inform you of the risks identified and the importance of informing the employer when you become pregnant.

· Revisit the general risk assessment to see if a risk has been identified and removing it if possible, after you have told your employer you are pregnant.

· Adjust working conditions to avoid a risk, if it is reasonable to do so.

· Offer any suitable alternative work which is available (this must be on same pay as your normal role).

· Suspend you on full pay, if there is no suitable alternative work.

Q: How much notice do I need to give regarding maternity leave?

A: You should notify your manager of your intention to apply for maternity leave by the end of the qualifying week, which is defined as the 15th week before the Expected Week of Confinement (EWC).

Q: I am 20-weeks pregnant and my doctor has signed me off work due to a pre-eclampsia. I am due to remain off work until the baby is born. How does this affect my maternity leave?

A: Pre-eclampsia would be considered a pregnancy related condition, and if you are not able to work because of pregnancy-related illness, your employer is legally required to pay you sick pay in the same way as other employees until the last four weeks of your pregnancy. This may be company sick pay or statutory sick pay if your employer does not provide company sick pay.

You should provide a doctor’s certificate to your employer.

During the last four weeks of your pregnancy, your maternity leave will start automatically.

Q: I am 20-weeks pregnant and my doctor has signed me off work due to an illness unrelated to my pregnancy. How does this affect my maternity leave?

A: If your ill health is not related to your pregnancy, then you will take sick leave like any other employee.

Your maternity leave is not triggered if your illness is not connected to your pregnancy, for example if you have flu.

Q: What length of maternity leave am I entitled to take?

A: All pregnant employees, regardless of length of service, are entitled to 26-weeks OML and 26-weeks AML, a total of 52-weeks maternity leave.

OML – Ordinary Maternity Leave (26-weeks)

AML – Additional Maternity Leave (further 26-weeks in addition to OML).

Q: I started my job three weeks ago and have discovered I am pregnant. What are my rights?

A: You will have the same rights as any other employee, and be protected from unfair treatment due to your pregnancy.

If your probationary period within your new employment is unsuccessful for any reason in relation to your pregnancy, this would be pregnancy discrimination.

Your job must not be changed because you are pregnant, unless:

· You agree to change in the work you are doing and your responsibilities

· You cannot do part of your job for health and safety reasons, for example if your job involves heavy lifting. Your employer must remove the risk, offer you different and safe work or allow you to be on paid leave

· You need to hand over your duties and responsibilities before you start your maternity leave.

Q: I am off on maternity leave and an internal vacancy in the company where I work has been advertised. Can I apply?

A: Yes. If you are qualified to do the job you should not let pregnancy prevent you from applying.

An employer must not refuse to appoint you to the job because of your pregnancy.

Q: I am pregnant and a job in an external company has been advertised. I want to apply. What are my rights?

A: Your employer must treat you in exactly the same way as any other job applicant. When applying for a job role you must not be rejected because you are:

· Pregnant, or

· Likely to be pregnant, or

· About to go on maternity leave.

An employer must not, because of your pregnancy:

· Refuse to interview you or not appoint you to a job

· Give you a job for a limited period instead of permanent employment, or

· Offer you a lower salary or other different, less favourable terms than you would otherwise have been offered.

If you have been offered a job, either internally or with and external company, and discover you are pregnant you do not have to inform your new employer before you accept the job offer.

Q: What measures does my employer have to put in place to enable me to remain at work while I am pregnant?

A: Your employer must protect from any workplace risk, for example, from lifting heavy objects or from stretching up to high shelves, once you have informed them that you are pregnant.

Your employer must use the same processes as recommended above at question three and make adjustments as required and reasonable.

Your employer cannot insist that you take sick leave if you are unable to work because the job you do is a risk to your health and safety.

Your employer must either change your duties to avoid the risks, offer you a suitable alternative job or suspend you on full pay.

Q: Redundancies are announced while I am pregnant/on maternity leave. What does this mean for me?

A: Your employer must tell you if there is a redundancy exercise taking place during your maternity leave.

An employer is able to make you redundant while on maternity leave if the following conditions are satisfied:

· There is a genuine redundancy situation

· You are properly consulted and involved in the consultation process when on maternity leave

· You are not chosen for redundancy because you are on maternity leave

· The selection criteria and how they are assessed do not disadvantage you because of your pregnancy or maternity leave, and

· Your employer has properly considered whether there is a suitable alternative job for you, even if you are not able to take the job until the end of your maternity leave.

Q: My baby is nine months when I return to work and I am breastfeeding. Does my employer have to put anything in place to assist me?

A: Yes. Once you have informed your employer in writing that you are breastfeeding your employer should assist by considering any risks to you, or your baby, as identified by risk assessment, and take reasonable action to eliminate or reduce risks.

An employer must:

· Consider if it is possible to remove the risk by, for example, altering your working conditions or hours of work.

· If it is not possible to remove the risk by such adjustments an employer must offer you suitable alternative work.

· If there is no suitable alternative work, your employer should suspend you on full pay.

There is no legal right to time off to breastfeed or for rest periods, however your employer is required to provide suitable facilities for breastfeeding mothers to rest.

A refusal to make reasonable adjustments must be justified by the employer as necessary for the needs of the business.

Q: I return to work after maternity leave and my role has changed. Is this legal?

A: Your employer is legally required to ensure that you return to exactly the same job that you did before the start of your maternity leave.

The terms of your employment must be the same as they would have been, had you not been on maternity leave.

On returning to work after maternity leave, you will have the right to return to the same post unless the post is redundant.

In such cases, you will return to a suitable alternative post where one is available.

If you are returning to work after more than 26-weeks’ leave (additional maternity leave), your employer is legally required to ensure that you return to the same job, unless this is not reasonably practicable.

If there is a substantial reason why your old job is no longer available (such as due to business changes) your employer must offer you a suitable alternative job.

An alternative job must be:

· Suitable and appropriate, for example, it should not be at a different location, which is difficult to travel to.

· On terms and conditions of employment, which are ‘no less favourable’ than your previous job.

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