Dealing with the challenge of maternity leave

Jane Crosby, from law firm Hart Brown outlines what employers and expectant mothers should know, when it comes to maternity leave regulations.

Key legal rights

Health and safety requirements require all businesses to take steps to protect a pregnant woman from particular risks that could harm her or her baby.

All pregnant women have the right to reasonable time off for ante natal care and eligible employees can take up to 52 weeks maternity leave regardless of length of service. In terms of pay eligible employees can be paid up to 39 weeks statutory maternity pay which is 90 per cent of their average weekly earnings before tax and the remaining 33 weeks at £139.58 or 90 per cent of their average weekly earnings whichever is the lower.  There is a facility for companies to recover this statutory pay from the HMRC subject to eligibility.

From 5 April 2015, 18 weeks of unpaid parental leave was extended from parents of children under 5 (unless the child has a disability) to all parents of children up to the age of 18 years.  The employee needs to have at least one year’s continuous employment to qualify for this right.

A new flexible system of shared parental and pay rights is available to parents of children born on or after 5 April 2015.  This arrangement allows one of two people (and who may be either the mother, the father or the mother’s partner) to share the leave.  The mother must take the first two weeks and the remaining 50 weeks can be shared.  Up to 39 weeks’ statutory pay can be also shared between the parents.

Preparation and planning

One of the elements to avoid disputes in the workplace is the need to prepare and plan for situations which involve maternity leave.

It is important to carry out a risk assessment to make sure the workplace is a safe place for pregnant women to work against risks such as extremes of heat and cold. Good communication is a vital part of this process which starts as soon as the business becomes aware of a pregnancy. It is good practice to agree a date to meet with your employee to ensure an effective handover of work.  This meeting can be also used to identify the key dates such as the baby’s due date and the return to work date.

It may sound obvious but written records should be kept of all communications such as emails, meetings and telephone conversations minimising the risk of misinterpretation between the parties. It is important that clear policies are in place so that pitfalls can be avoided such as failure to deal with the time limits for flexible working requests.

Recruitment and communication

If a woman has requested to return to work during her ordinary maternity leave then she has an entitlement to return to the job she was doing before her maternity leave. Recruiting temporary cover will involve additional cost and preparation but these employees/agency workers should be integrated into the workforce quickly to minimise the cost.  Communication is also important with the employee who is on maternity leave to establish when and if, they want to return to work and if they have any flexible working requests such as part time hours which may necessitate the person who has provided temporary cover to remain in the business for longer than originally anticipated.

Return to work

One method of ensuring a smooth return to work for the employee is to allow a phased return to work as there may have been significant changes for the employee and the business while they have been away. This phased return will help to build relationships again both with customers and staff.  Communicating with the employee during their maternity leave can make them feel more valued and ensure a better transition back to work.

Employers need to be aware of all the statutory rights applicable to pregnant employees and how to handle these processes effectively to prevent problems arising which can be costly for any business.