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Pregnant Then Screwed: Know your parental rights
Motherhood and the prospect of having a newborn baby should be a time of excitement and joy, but for many women the spectre of being forced out of their job as a result of becoming a parent looms large.
A study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that in a survey of more than 3,200 women, 11% reported having been dismissed, made compulsorily redundant while others in their workplace weren’t, or were treated so poorly they felt they had little choice but to leave their jobs.
If replicated across the population as a whole, this adds up to 54,000 women a year losing their jobs simply for being mums.
The pandemic has only amplified the long-term discrimination experienced by pregnant women and mothers. A legal advice line run by charity, Pregnant Then Screwed, (PTS) annually received 3,000 calls from women experiencing pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work, since the start of the pandemic it’s increased rapidly and they’ve helped more than 32,000 women. And the numbers show no sign of falling.
Currently women are protected from redundancy only while on maternity or parental leave and even those who are illegally discriminated against struggle to bring cases against their employers, not least because of the three-month time limit to make a claim just when the demands of being a new parent are at their height.
As a result only one percent raise a tribunal claim.
Joeli Brearley, founder of PTS, was a charity worker when she was sacked by voicemail the day after she told her boss she was pregnant. She wanted to take the charity to court but as a high-risk pregnancy, doctors warned that the stress would likely trigger an early labour and she had to drop the case.
Because she wasn’t on staff but self-employed and working under contract, Joeli would have had to go to court rather than tribunal.
‘I was left with the choice of accessing justice or risking the health of my unborn child. Had I continued with the case, and the baby died, I would never have forgiven myself. I had to drop it,’ she admitted.
Pregnant Then Screwed launched in 2015 and offers legal advice and mentorship to support women going through tribunals, as well as undertaking research and campaigns to improve conditions for pregnant women and mothers.
There is however a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
The Protection From Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act 2023, has just been passed in the House of Commons and if it goes through the Lords, it means employers can’t make women redundant from the moment their pregnancy is disclosed, until the child is 18 months old.
Labour MP Dan Jarvis who is spearheading the bill says: ‘It will place a statutory duty on employers to prioritise soon to be and new parents in a redundancy situation by offering them – not inviting them – to apply for a suitable alternative vacancy if their job becomes at risk’.
Unison’s general secretary Christina McAnea said the bill recognised the period surrounding maternity leave was fraught with risk for women and their families at a time when they most needed job security. And with maternity discrimination cases making up much of the union’s legal case load, she believes the new law can’t come soon enough.
You are entitled to a year of Statutory Maternity Leave no matter how long you’ve been in your job but you’ll only get maternity pay for 39 weeks if you are eligible. The earliest paid leave can start is the 11th week before the baby is due and if your child arrives early, your leave starts the day after the birth.
Even if you don’t want to take 52 weeks, you must take at least two weeks off after having a baby.
While you’re on maternity leave you’ll still be entitled to all the employee rights you normally get from work – paid holiday, protection from unfair dismissal, pension payments and rights and any other employee benefits like gym membership or medical insurance for the whole maternity period. You can find out your entitlement and helpful information here.
The amount of Statutory Maternity Pay you’ll be paid varies during your maternity leave. For the 2023/24 tax year, you will receive 90% of your average weekly earnings before tax, for the first six weeks. For the next 33 weeks you’ll get £172.48 per week or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is less), and the final 13 weeks are unpaid.
These figures are the minimum amount your employer has to pay and depending on your contract, you may be eligible for more generous benefits. (maternity.money has a useful calculator to help you work out what you are likely to get).
Remember, you must tell your employer you’re going on maternity leave at least 15 weeks before the baby’s due date, and you must give them eight weeks notice if you want to return later or earlier.
A TUC report revealed employers who support pregnant women and new parents maintain a skilled and diverse workforce, and that in turn leads to increased profitability and productivity.
So some companies do offer enhanced pay which is more than the statutory amount. However do be aware that if you don’t return to work after the pregnancy, you might have to repay the additional amount you got.
If you’re self-employed you won’t be eligible for Statutory Maternity Pay but you might be able to claim Maternity Allowance, a benefit paid by the government. You will also get Class 1 National Insurance credits automatically which is important as they count towards your State Pension entitlement. However the Allowance might impact other benefits you get so talk to your local Citizen’s Advice or expert to ensure you’re getting the best help possible.
For those hoping to adopt a child there is Statutory Adoption Leave and Pay and if you are having a child through surrogacy, you may also be eligible for this benefit but you must apply to become the legal parent within six months of the child’s birth. You must also apply for a parental order if one intended parent is genetically related to the child or an adoption order if neither parent is genetically related to the child.
Adoption leave, like maternity, is 52 weeks and you have the right to claim it from the first day of your employment, but you must have been matched with a child through an adoption agency and provide proof to your employer.
In 2003 it was officially recognised that dad’s too wanted to spend those crucial first days with their new borns and up to two weeks paid paternity leave was introduced for those continuously employed for 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth. It’s currently paid at £140.98 per week or 90 per cent of weekly earnings, whichever is lower.
Of course the demands of being a parent don’t just stop when the maternity leave does so what about those emergencies when your child is ill, your childcare arrangements fall through or there’s an incident at their school?
You should not be penalised by your employer although they don’t have to pay you while you are off work and you can only take the time it takes to arrange for someone else to care for them.
You’re entitled to 18 weeks unpaid leave per child until they turn 18, regardless of whether they are adopted or birth children for such things as spending time with your child during a hospital stay, looking at new schools or settling your child into new childcare arrangements.
You must inform your company at least 21 days in advance and while they can’t refuse parental leave, they can postpone it for up to six months if the timing means the business would be particularly disrupted. However they must give you written notice of the postponement, no later than seven days after you informed them of your plans. For more information on this go to workingfamilies.org.uk.
As well as running Pregnant Then Screwed, Joeli Brearley has written a book packed with advice on discrimination in the workplace, The Motherhood Penalty: How to stop motherhood being the kiss of death for your career (£8.39).
The impact of the organisation is already being felt. In 2022 their work was mentioned in Parliament every 10 days, they have secured £1.3 million for the women they support and started a national conversation on childcare reform and how the current system is failing parents.
The charity also has qualified advisors to help with guidance on your legal rights – you can call them on 0161 2229879 or go to their website pregnantthenscrewed.com.
‘There is no more important job in the world than raising a family, it seems only right that women should not lose theirs for doing so,’ says Mr Jarvis.