They’re the words that bring both joy and sadness to an employer’s ears: “I’m pregnant!”
The happiness felt on behalf of the employee can quickly be overshadowed by the dread of having to arrange cover, potentially train new staff, pay out for two lots of salary, and maybe even deal with increased absence before the maternity leave even starts.
So what do we need to make sure we do when an employee tells us they’re expecting?
1) Get it in writing
Most standard maternity policies dictate that the employee should confirm in writing that they’re pregnant and that they intend to take maternity leave. They should also indicate whether they intend to return to work after the maternity leave. Sounds a bit trivial but if they don’t plan on coming back, they shouldn’t be getting any occupational maternity pay and if you know in advance, you don’t pay it out – otherwise you might find it difficult to recoup it afterwards! You should ensure that your contracts of employment state that mothers who do not return to work following maternity leave will be required to repay any occupational maternity pay received.
Helpful: Maternity leave and pay policy and procedure [PLUS]
2) Risk assess
Pregnant staff may be more at risk of certain things (e.g. being susceptible to particular illnesses, at risk from violent patients, even at risk of increased stress), so you have an obligation to “protect” them as much as possible. You should therefore carry out a risk assessment as soon as you’re made aware of the pregnancy. This may also require you to make amendments to the job, working hours, working location or environment, etc. to mitigate the risk of harm occurring.
Pregnancy and maternity are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 so you have a statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments for pregnant staff. This may even include reducing their hours for a reasonable period – but not reducing their wage. So if you can implement anything else to keep them working at their contracted hours, you really should!
Helpful: New and expectant mothers risk assessment [PLUS]
3) Get the right documentation
Your pregnant employee needs to give you the original copy of her MATB1 certificate. This is your proof to HMRC that statutory maternity pay is claimable. No MATB1 = no evidence. She may need to provide copies of it for other things (e.g. the other parent may need a copy to be able to claim paternity/partner leave), in which case she may take copies, but the original needs to go to the mother’s employer.
4) Contractual entitlements
In terms of entitlement to redundancy, sick pay, holiday, pay rises, etc., the employee remains entitled to everything, just as if she weren’t off work.
If she were to reach X years’ service whilst on maternity leave, and this would usually mean extra annual leave, does she still get it? Yes.
Is she entitled to bank holidays whilst on maternity leave? Yup!
Is she entitled to be consulted if there are going to be changes to her terms and conditions of employment whilst she’s on maternity leave? You bet!
Is she entitled to return to the same job that she left? Absolutely (unless that job has changed as a result of some organisational change and she has been appropriately consulted).
Is maternity leave a break in service? Absolutely not.
How much maternity leave is she allowed? Up to a year. Also, she MUST take two weeks off after the birth of the child. (You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve never encountered anyone who just took two weeks off and then came back to work!)
What level of maternity pay is she entitled to? This will depend on your contract of employment.
Is she allowed to change her working hours or days on her return from maternity leave? Possibly. She can submit a flexible working request which you legally have to consider, but you don’t have to say ‘yes’ if you have valid justification for refusal. (Flexible working is a complex topic which I’ll cover in another blog.)
Helpful: Flexible working policy [PLUS]
Is she entitled to a phased return to work? No. Phased returns are only applicable for sickness absence.
5) Minimising the impact
The key thing with maternity leave is to prepare. Hopefully you’ll have been given plenty of notice, allowing you to make cover arrangements.
If you’re employing someone on a fixed term contract (FTC), it’s important for your pregnant staff member to tell you how long she plans to have off work. If it’s 12 months, then arrange a 12-month FTC. If she’s not sure but it’s a minimum of 9 months, arrange a 9-month FTC. You’ll have more option to extend a contract than to cut one short. Ensure that the pregnant employee knows she needs to give adequate notice if she wishes to change her arrangements (and I’d always recommend 8 weeks as a starting point).
And what about all that holiday she’s going to accrue? You can stipulate in your policy that employees are “requested” (or “it is preferred”) to take all accrued holiday prior to going on maternity leave. You can also stipulate that they use the holiday they accrue on maternity leave before physically returning to work.
This may mean that you end up with someone who’s off for a year and 6 weeks, but if you’ve got cover in on a FTC you can extend it as necessary. Provided the cover doesn’t accrue more than 2 years’ service with you, you have the right to terminate with appropriate notice and no redundancy. Be wary of staff covering multiple absences; if their service builds up to 2+ years, then you will have to make them redundant or find them another job!
You often get staff trying to use their holiday to effectively come back part-time, but remember that annual leave is granted at the discretion of the manager – i.e. you! If you can’t accommodate it, you don’t have to say yes.
6) Managing pregnancy-related sickness absence
Another thing that often arises with pregnant staff is an increase in absence due to sickness. Hey, it happens! But how do we manage it?
As mentioned before, maternity is a protected characteristic. This generally means that any sickness absence related to the pregnancy (e.g. morning sickness, back pain, Braxton Hicks, etc.) should really be discounted from any absence management process. You’re never going to be able to fairly dismiss someone who has persistent absence due to pregnancy because you know the “illness” will eventually “resolve”. You should still carry out return-to-work interviews for pregnant staff.
This doesn’t mean that entitlement to sick pay isn’t affected, though, and some expectant mothers need to be aware of this. Their pay may still reduce if they’ve used all of their sick pay entitlements. This will not, however, affect their maternity pay.
If the employee goes off sick within the 4 weeks preceding the due date, you can make them start their maternity leave early. They don’t have the option to appeal against this.
Hopefully that’s covered everything. Feel free to post any questions below and I’ll come back to you!
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