New and expectant mothers have a number of legal rights in the workplace.
Pregnant employees enjoy the right to be paid for time off work that is spent receiving antenatal care (employers cannot request that employees make up this time by working additional hours).
While employers risk legal action if they subject pregnant staff to unfair treatment, discrimination, dismissal or redundancy (for reasons pertaining to the pregnancy).
The law in England and Wales provides additional rights for new mothers who decide to take maternity leave.
Qualifying for statutory maternity pay
In the UK, new mothers have the right to receive paid maternity leave. Employers usually offer more generous terms than the statutory minimum, so expectant mothers should check their contracts of employment for more details.
Of course, employers cannot offer less favourable terms than the statutory minimum, so new mothers cannot be forced to accept a less generous deal.
Freelancers, self-employed workers and the unemployed are not entitled to statutory maternity pay, but maternity allowance may be an option.
An expectant mother will only qualify for statutory maternity pay if she has been working for the same employer in an employed capacity for a minimum period of 26 weeks without interruption before the end of the 15th week prior to her due date.
Her earnings must also exceed or be equal to the lower earnings limit, which is the threshold for paying National Insurance Contributions (NIC). In the 2012/2013 tax year, the lower earnings limit was set at £107 a week.
Finally, expectant mothers should give sufficient notice of their pregnancy and intention to claim statutory maternity pay. Sufficient notice is usually considered to be 15 weeks before the expected week of childbirth, but this can be changed provided that the employee gives notice of 28 days.
Maternity leave rights
Employers who are concerned about losing important members of staff to maternity leave should consider comprehensive business insurance.
Though often inconvenient, the prospect of maternity leave does not provide employers with an opportunity to discriminate or dismiss pregnant staff. An employer cannot, for example, demand that a new mother continues working during her period of maternity leave.
Equally, an employer cannot prevent an employee from making an early return to work if she has given notice of at least eight weeks.
New or expectant mothers in the UK who meet the criteria described above should be aware that they are entitled to statutory maternity leave, which can last for up to 52 weeks. Statutory maternity leave comprises ordinary maternity leave (26 weeks) and additional maternity leave (26 weeks).
Pregnant employees should not be tricked into believing that maternity leave can only commence after childbirth; indeed, statutory maternity leave can begin from 11 weeks before the expected week of childbirth if the requisite notice has been provided.
Though statutory maternity leave is not compulsory, all new mothers must take between two and four weeks off work after childbirth. Employers cannot prevent new mothers from returning to work after this period provided that early notice has been given.
Female employees who take paid maternity leave are entitled to statutory maternity pay for a period of up to 39 weeks. During the first six weeks of leave, the rate of pay is fixed at 90 per cent of the employee’s average weekly earnings; thereafter, the figure falls to a flat rate of £135.45 a week (2012/2013) or 90 per cent of average weekly earnings if the employee earns less than this figure. Employers who offer company maternity leave cannot offer less than the statutory minimum.
A female employee can lodge a formal grievance complaint through the normal channels if she believes that her employer is frustrating her attempts to take maternity leave or is otherwise discriminating against her.