HR Alert: Reducing risk of pregnancy discrimination

PRACTICES are reminded of the importance of having detailed policies in place to support new and expectant mums at work.

Recent figures from charity Citizens Advice reported a 25 per cent rise in people seeking advice on pregnancy and maternity discrimination between April 2015 and March 2016 compared to the previous 12 months.

Examples from the study included pregnant women and new mums having their working hours cut, being placed on zero hours contracts, pressured to return to work early from maternity leave and, in some extreme cases, forced out of their jobs.

This follows on from research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that revealed over three quarters of mothers reported a negative or discriminatory experience at work during their pregnancy, maternity leave or their return to work.

At MDDUS, we regularly receive calls to our employment law advice line on issues regarding sex discrimination. Many of the queries are in relation to pregnant employees and those returning to work after maternity leave feeling they have been treated unfairly.

Some of these complaints could have been avoided if the practice had an up-to-date maternity policy in their staff handbook. A copy of this should be issued to employees when they join the practice so they are aware of their rights and maternity benefits.

Here are some key points you might wish to consider:

Pay and leave

The legislation surrounding this is quite specific. All employees are entitled to up to 52 weeks’ leave if they are pregnant. However, depending on your employee’s length of service and other qualifying conditions, they may be entitled to 39 weeks Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP). As an employer, you should pay the SMP but can then claim all or most of it back from the government depending on your national insurance bill.

Health and safety

Once you have been informed of the pregnancy, you are required to carry out a health and safety assessment to ensure no aspect of the job involves any risk to the mother or child. If risks are identified, you must take action to remove, reduce or control the risk. If this cannot be done, then you may be obliged to adjust her working conditions, offer suitable alternative work or get her to take paid leave in order to protect the health and safety of her and her child.

Right to paid time off

All pregnant employees are entitled to paid time off to attend antenatal care. You should not ask your employee to make up this time. You may however request that she provides evidence of these appointments, such as an appointment card.

Fathers and partners of pregnant women are entitled to unpaid time off to attend two ante-natal appointments.

What rights does an employee have when off on maternity leave?

During the first 26 weeks of ordinary maternity leave and the 26 weeks of additional maternity leave, an employee is entitled to benefit from all terms and conditions of employment with the exception of salary. This includes the accrual of annual leave which can sometimes come as a surprise to practices. They are also entitled to benefit from any pay increases introduced while they were on maternity leave once they return to work.

Furthermore, they can attend up to ten “Keeping in touch” days without affecting their statutory maternity pay. You should arrange payment with the employee for these days but note the employee must be in full agreement to attend these days at work. They are not an obligation but may be useful to ensure that essential training days, meetings or updates are not missed.

Discrimination

You should take extra care to ensure that you do not treat an employee unfairly (intentionally or otherwise) because she is pregnant or about to go on leave as a result of her pregnancy. An employee who feels that she has been unfairly treated because she is pregnant may have a case for sex discrimination.

Returning to work

An employee wishing to return earlier than the original date must give eight weeks’ notice of her intentions. An employee returning from ordinary maternity leave has the right to return to the same job on the same terms and an employee returning from additional maternity leave has the same rights unless this is not reasonably practical, in which case a suitable alternative must be offered.

Any requests to return to work on a part-time basis should be made through a flexible working request.

The area of maternity legislation can be complex and when in doubt, you should take employment advice. Practices can contact the MDDUS employment law team for further advice