Despite nearly a century of legislation protecting employees in the workplace and the strength of the union movement in the UK, many women still worry about telling their employer that they are pregnant. The news media is full of individual stories about women who have been treated unfairly, their rights trampled over. But, worry not. If you follow our simple guide, that will make your rights, and your employer's obligations clear, chances are you will have a positive experience of working through your pregnancy. Be aware that because we are referring to statutory requirements, the legal positions outlined below are the minimum you are afforded. Your employer may well have a more generous policy in most areas, so check your contract terms and conditions, staff policies or staff handbook, or see your HR representative, for more detail.
Telling your Employer you're pregnant
The legal position; you are not obliged to tell your employer that you are pregnant until after the first trimester, but your employer's extra responsibilities in relation to keeping you safe do not kick in until you have informed them. You do have to inform your employer of your pregnancy no later than the 15th week before your baby is due. You should do so in writing, detailing 1) the fact that you are pregnant, 2) the predicted due date of your baby, and 3) the date on which you intend to start maternity leave, (though this does not mean that you cannot alter the date at a later stage, as long as you give your employer 28 days' notice).
If you choose not to tell your employer until later on into your pregnancy, you must consider your own safety and minimise risks. Ultimately, adopting this course of action leaves you in a more vulnerable position, should there be hazards that are hard for you to minimise 'privately' as it were, or that you are unaware of. Perhaps it is better to overcome your reservations, inform them, and let the risk assessment go ahead. Pregnant women are legally protected from unfair treatment relating to their pregnancy, and if your employer fails in this regard, it is automatically regarded a sex discrimination. All your other usual terms and conditions of employment, such as accrual of annual leave, sick pay arrangements, redundancy rights, and so forth, are not altered by the fact that you are pregnant. Furthermore, your employer cannot exclude you from consideration for promotion or pay rise on the grounds that you are pregnant.
How your Employer must keep you safe
The legal position If an employer receives confirmation that an employee is pregnant, they must conduct a risk assessment taking account of any specific advice from the employee's midwife or GP. They must then do all that is reasonable to remove or reduce the risks found.
A specific risk assessment is your best protection against hazards during your pregnancy, for two main reasons. First, there may be risks associated with some aspect of your job that, while not normally a hazard, may put you and your baby at risk. Examples of this might be chemical or fume inhalation or working nightshifts. Second, there may be risks in the way that some of your routine tasks take a toll on your changing body, such as constant standing or sitting, heavy lifting, or substantial travelling. If risks are found in the workplace as a result of this process, your employer must minimise them in one of three ways;
- By temporarily adjusting working conditions or hours of work
- By offering suitable, alternative work at the same rate of pay
- If no suitable work is available, your employer must suspend you from work on full pay for as long as necessary to avoid the risks
Taking the time for appointments
The legal position The law allows you reasonable time off for antenatal appointments such as scans or midwife checks, and can include parentcraft or relaxation classes, if your GP or midwife write to confirm that they consider these classes part of your antenatal care. This should be paid time off, though your employer is allowed to ask to see evidence of these appointments, such as an appointment card.
Your rights to Maternity Leave
The legal position You are entitled to up to 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave, and providing you give your employer the correct notice, you can do this no matter how long you've worked for them, how many hours you work or what you are paid. However, your entitlement to leave does not necessarily mean paid leave for the whole 52 weeks. Maternity Leave cannot start any earlier than the 11th week prior to the predicted due date of your child, with two important exceptions; if your fall ill with a pregnancy-related illness during the last four weeks in which you are due to work, or your baby arrives early, your employer has the right to start your maternity leave from that point.
All women employees are entitled to Maternity Leave regardless of how many hours they work or how long you have worked for your employer. Leave is broken down into Ordinary Maternity Leave (OML), and describes the first 26 weeks of your entitlement, and Additional Maternity Leave (AML) which is the second 26 weeks of your entitlement. Your employer will assume you are taking the full 52 weeks unless you give notice of an intention to do otherwise. Your decision may be affected by your entitlement to Maternity Pay, which for most women comes to an end after 39 weeks.
Your rights to Maternity Pay
The legal position You are entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) as long as you meet the following criteria;
- You have worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks up to the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth - known as the 'qualifying week'
- You earn on average at least £107 a week
- You have given the correct notice
- You have given proof you're pregnant
SMP is paid at two rates. For the first six weeks you get 90% of your average pay. For the remaining 33% weeks you are paid 90% of your average pay or £135.45, whichever is the lower. In practice many employers pay additional (contractual) maternity pay, and should you decide not to return to work after the birth of your child, they can only ask you to pay back these additional monies if that was agreed prior to the birth of your child. If you do not qualify for SMP because you began working for your employer when you were already pregnant or your earnings are too low, you may qualify for Maternity Allowance (MA), which is also paid at a rate of £135.45. The qualifying conditions for MA are a little complex, so check with your local Job Centre Plus for more information, as they administer the scheme.
Returning to work
The legal position If you return to work following OML only, you are entitled to return to exactly the same job. If you go back after AML, you also have a right to return to the same job, but if your employer can prove this is not reasonably practicable, you have the right to be offered a suitable alternative job on very similar terms and conditions. Your employer will assume that you will take the full 52 weeks of your entitlement. If you want to return earlier than this, you must give your employer 8 weeks notice. You are prevented by law from working in the two weeks following the birth of your child. If you need additional leave following the completion of your AML, you may be able to take parental leave (a maximum of 13 weeks unpaid leave that all parents of children under five are entitled to).
At the point of going on maternity leave you may feel uncertain about whether you wish to return to work. It is advisable therefore to say that you do plan to return to keep your options open, and if you later decide not to, then you can resign in the normal way, and your notice period can run alongside your maternity leave. You also have the right to ask to return on a part-time basis and your employer must, legally, seriously consider your request. Only a good business reason can justify their refusal.
Beyond these main rights and responsibilities...
There are a further range of rights in relation to sickness recording, benefits, redundancy, paternity leave and so on. For further information visit GOV.uk at www.gov.uk, ACAS at www.acas.org.uk or Maternity Action at www.maternityaction.org.uk, who publish a useful range of downloadable factsheets on many pregnancy-related matters.