Becoming a mum is an exciting and life-changing experience.
From the moment that expectant mothers return to work with the good news, they are afforded certain protections, known as maternity rights, that are designed to protect their health and wellbeing as they continue to work throughout their term.
Indeed advances in medicine, coupled with growing economic pressure often mean that women continue to work further and further into their pregnancy or adoption term before they take their leave.
To ensure the health and safety of expectant mothers in the workplace, it’s important that everyone, from mums-to-be to line managers, understands what these maternity rights are and why they’re such a vital part of maintaining a safe and respectful workplace culture.
Maternity Rights at Work- Laws and Regulations
There are four key pieces of legislation that govern the rights of expectant mothers in the workplace.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 outlines the responsibility that employers have to create and maintain a safe and secure workplace for their employees. These regulations are purposefully broad in nature to ensure that all employees are protected, including new and expectant mothers.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (specifically sections 16 to 18) require employers to conduct suitable and thorough risk assessments to identify risks that pose a danger to the health, safety and wellbeing of new and expectant mothers. Once these risks have been assessed employers must introduce appropriate safeguarding measures that eliminate or minimise the risk involved.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 require employers to provide adequate welfare facilities for new or expectant mothers. This can include anything from appropriate rest areas to private rooms where mothers are able to lie down if necessary. Medical advice provided by a doctor is often taken into account to determine the best course of action.
The Equality Act 2010 provides protection to expectant mothers and those on maternity/adoption leave against discrimination. This can include instances where employers have acted unlawfully, such as reducing working hours without warning or failing to implement reasonable change for the purpose of health and safety.
Each act and list of regulations are designed to protect the rights of new and expectant mothers, and ensure that their needs are addressed appropriately within the workplace. Additionally, they serve to outline and reinforce the level of responsibility that employers have to take proactive steps towards health and safety.
Maternity Rights at Work – What You Need to Know
Under UK law, expectant mothers (including adopting parents) have certain rights that are designed to protect them from harm, abuse or discrimination while at work.
Expectant mothers are entitled to:
Protection for Health, Safety and Wellbeing
As outlined under the acts and regulations above, employers have a duty of care to ensure that the workplace is safe and suitable for all employees, including expectant mothers. One of their key responsibilities is to carry out a thorough risk assessment.
Employers should be notified about your pregnancy at least 15 weeks before your expected due date. However, there are a number of reasons why this might not always be possible, particularly if the pregnancy is not detected during the early stages. In this case, the employer must be informed as soon as possible.
Once an employer is informed, they should revisit their existing risk assessment to ensure it’s suitability. It’s highly recommended that you discuss any specific needs (as outlined by your doctor or midwife) with your employer so they can identify any actions that need to be taken.
If risk cannot be eliminated, employers must minimise or control 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, the employee must be suspended from work on full pay as long as is necessary to protect the health of mother and baby
Employees that are suspended on medical grounds (due to pregnancy) are entitled to pay equal to a normal week’s wage. However, your employer may decide to offer work that may be more suitable for you during the course of your pregnancy. If you are offered suitable work, you must take it, or you may lose your right to be paid.
If you are concerned about a health and safety issue but your employer doesn’t agree it’s an issue, you should talk to your health and safety manager or a union official if you are a union member. You can also consult your doctor or contact the Health and Safety Executive if your employer refuses to take action.
Access to Prenatal Care
Expectant mothers are entitled to reasonable leave (with full pay) to attend any prenatal care appointments.
Prenatal (also referred to as antenatal) care is not defined in law and may cover a variety of needs. While in most cases prenatal care relates to medical appointments, it could also include Lamaze sessions and parenting classes. Employers will request proof in the form of appointment cards to authorise paid leave.
Adopting parents are entitled to paid leave to attend adoption appointments, and any appropriate care classes to aid in the adoption process.
Expectant mothers have the right to 26 weeks of ordinary maternity leave. They can also take a further 26 weeks of additional maternity leave which equals one year in total. The full 52 week total is known as Statutory Maternity Leave (SML).
Adopting parents are entitled to the exact same terms of leave, which is known as adoption leave (AL).
Adoption leave can start:
- Up to 14 days before the date your child starts living with you (for adoptions within the UK)
- When your child arrives in the UK or within 28 days beforehand (for overseas adoptions)
- The day your child is born or the following day (in the case of a surrogate pregnancy).
While you’re away on SML or AL, your organisation is required to keep your position open for you by law. In most cases, they will advertise for maternity cover and in others, they may redistribute your workload to employees that share your job role or work within your department.
Expectant mothers are entitled to 39 weeks of Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP).
To qualify for SMP expectant mothers must:
- Earn on average at least £116 a week
- Have been employed by your employer for at least 26 weeks
- Provide notice
- Provide proof of pregnancy or adoption (Note: although employers are permitted to request proof by law, the majority of organisations do not exercise this right).
- Have worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks continuing into the ‘qualifying week’ which is the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth.
SMP varies from person to person according to their respective salary.
- For the first six weeks of SMP you’ll be paid at 90% of your average gross weekly earnings or £140.98 (whichever is the lowest estimate).
- For the remaining 33 weeks, you’ll be paid at the lower end of either the standard rate of £140.98, or 90% of your average gross weekly earnings.
- The last 13 weeks of SML, if you choose to take it, is unpaid.
If you don’t fulfil the requirements for SMP, you may be entitled to Maternity Allowance (MA) instead. Maternity allowance You can claim Maternity Allowance when your pregnancy reaches 26 weeks. Payments can start 11 weeks before your baby is due.
Adopting parents are entitled to Statutory Adoption Pay (SAP) which adheres to the same criteria as SMP.
Additionally, many businesses and organisations now offer contractual maternity/adoption pay as part of their employment benefits package. In some cases, the contractual pay offered by your employer could be more than SMP or SAP, and can’t be any less. Details on any contractual pay will be outlined in your contract, or talk to your HR for more information.
If you’re not sure about whether you qualify, or how much you may be entitled to, visit the UK government site to access their maternity calculator.
Protection Against Discrimination and Dismissal
It’s unlawful for employers to treat women less favourably because of their pregnancy or desire to adopt. Employers can’t:
- Change terms and conditions of employment
- Reduce working hours without cause or permission
- Schedule work breaks that are purposefully unsuitable
- Pursue days off due to pregnancy-related illness as a disciplinary action.
Most importantly, expectant mothers can’t be made redundant as a direct result of their pregnancy/adoption. This is considered a form of discrimination, for which organisations can face civil action.
It’s important to note that redundancy can still take place as long as an employer can fairly justify their choice. Situations where this may be possible include necessary departmental closures or operational restructuring. However, you are entitled to the same level of consultation that’s offered to other employees, including information on suitable alternative job roles within your organisation. Employers can’t discount you from the selection process based on your pregnancy/adoption, pregnancy-related illnesses or any impending leave you have.
However, just because you are on maternity leave, it doesn’t mean you can’t speak with your employer.
In fact, it’s often a good idea to stay in contact, so that you feel more prepared when you do decide to return. You can work up to 10 days for your employer without losing your SMP entitlement. These are called keeping in touch days, and they can be taken at any point during your leave. It’s important to remember that these days are entirely optional, and work and pay entitlements should be agreed on by both parties.
However, if you do more than 10 days of work for your company, you will lose your SMP for each week in your maternity pay period.
The rights of new and expectant mothers in the workplace can be quite confusing because of the sheer amount of detail they go in to. But its important to remember that these rules and regulations are designed to make sure mums throughout the UK are able to work free from harm or discrimination.
This article is purely for informational purposes and does not constitute legal advice. For more information regarding the Working at Height Regulations 2005 visit: http://www.hse.gov.uk/