The balancing act
For most parents, the option of taking extended time away from employment in order to raise a family is not affordable. Although employers may wish to have staff with no outside distractions, the fact is that most workplaces have a considerable number of employees, who are also parents.
For both the employer and the employee it is a delicate balancing act. The business needs to be productive, but a parent who is over-tired or distracted by problems at home will not be able to work effectively. A working culture that encourages a healthy balance between work and parenting benefits both families and companies.
Our guide to parental rights at work explores the laws in place to protect the well-being of working parents.
Parental rights at work
Employees who are pregnant and new mothers have a number of rights, including the right not to be dismissed because of pregnancy, maternity leave or childbirth. Maternity rights include:
- The right to return to work
- The right to paid time off for ante-natal care and classes
- The right to all normal terms and conditions, except pay, during leave
- The right to shared parental leave and
statutory shared parental pay
- 26 weeks’ ordinary maternity leave
- 26 weeks’ additional maternity leave (AML)
- Employers must carry out a health and safety risk assessment
All pregnant employees are entitled to reasonable time off with pay to attend antenatal appointments and antenatal care. As an employer you have the right to ask an employee to show you an appointment card or other documents to confirm the scheduled appointments.
Expectant fathers or partners of a pregnant woman have the right to take unpaid time off to attend up to two antenatal appointments (up to a maximum of six and a half hours for each appointment).
As an employer you will need to take particular care with the way in which you deal with sickness absence during pregnancy. Pregnant employees are protected from discrimination and unfavourable treatment under section 18 of the Equality Act 2010, from when the pregnancy begins to the end of additional maternity leave (this is known as the ‘protected period’).
While normal episodes of sickness that are unrelated to pregnancy can be dealt with in the usual way, it is almost impossible to determine whether or not an episode of sickness is or isn’t related to the employee’s pregnancy. Where there is any doubt, always treat the absence as pregnancy related.
You have a duty to investigate whether or not any work-related factors have contributed to the absence and take reasonable measures to allow your employee to return to work. It may be that your employee needs to take more breaks or adjust working hours because of tiredness.
Episodes of absence that are pregnancy related should be disregarded for the purpose of attendance management and disciplinary procedures.
Ordinary maternity leave
All pregnant employees have the right to 52 weeks maternity leave. The first 26 weeks is known as ordinary maternity leave (OML), the second 26 weeks are called additional maternity leave (AML). There is no minimum length of service to take maternity leave.
A pregnant employee needs to notify you (their employer) at least 15 weeks before the baby is due to tell you that they are pregnant, when the baby is due, and when they intend to start maternity leave. You have the right to request this in writing.
If your employee wishes to change the start date of her maternity leave, she must give 28 days’ notice or agree a revised date with you.
If a pregnant employee is off work with a pregnancy-related illness in the four weeks before the baby is due, maternity leave automatically begins on the following day.
OML cannot begin until 11 weeks before the baby is due (unless the baby is born before then).
Your employee is entitled to the normal terms and conditions of employment during maternity leave, except those relating to renumeration. An employee continues to accrue paid leave, including bank holidays, during maternity leave. Annual leave can’t be taken at the same time as maternity leave.
Additional maternity leave
Employees are also entitled to take a further 26 weeks leave at the end of ordinary maternity leave. This is known as additional maternity leave (AML). AML starts on the day after the OML period finishes. If your employee qualifies for maternity pay, you will need to pay the statutory amount for the first 13 weeks of AML. The remaining AML is unpaid leave unless you offer a more generous pay arrangement (see contractual maternity pay below).
You may be wondering why maternity leave is differentiated into OML and AML. At the end of OML your employee has the right to return to her old job. At the end of AML your employee’s rights are slightly different. After AML, if it is not reasonably practical for you to give your employee their old job back you can offer a similar role on equally favourable terms.
Compulsory maternity leave
All pregnant employees must take a minimum two weeks’ maternity leave (4 weeks for factory workers) commencing on the day the child is born. It is a criminal offence for you as an employer to allow an employee to work during this period.
Statutory paternity leave (SPL) is the time your employee can take off when their partner gives birth or when they adopt a child. Your employee is entitled to take one or two weeks leave. The time must be taken as a whole week or consecutive weeks.
Paternity leave is in addition to the normal holiday allowance. Paternity leave cannot be taken before the birth or adoption and must end within 56 days of the birth (or due date if the baby is early).
To qualify for paternity leave, your employee must be either the child’s biological father, the child’s adopter or intended parent or the child’s mother’s husband or partner
(including same-sex partners).
If one of your employees is adopting a child or having a child through a surrogacy arrangement, they may be entitled to adoption leave and pay.
Statutory adoption leave can be for up to 52 weeks (the first 26 weeks is known as ‘ordinary adoption leave’, the last 26 weeks is known as ‘additional adoption leave’).
Shared parental leave
First introduced in the UK in 2015, shared parental leave (SPL) enables working parents to choose how they share the care of their child in the first year after birth. After the initial 2 weeks mandatory maternity leave, mothers and fathers or partners can share 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay.
Time off for dependants (parental leave)
Parental leave shouldn’t be confused with shared parental leave.
Parental leave is time off for employees who are parents (usually unpaid) to spend time with their child. To qualify, your employee must have worked for you for 1 year or more. Parents can request to take up to 18 weeks unpaid leave before their child is 18. The allowance is per child. It is also reasonable for employees to take unpaid time off for unexpected problems, such as when childcare arrangements break down.
As an employer you have an obligation to take any request for parental leave seriously, though you can opt to postpone parental leave for up to 6 months if the absence will cause disruption to your business.
Supporting LGBT staff
When LGBT employees look to start a family, employers need to be aware of how to support them. Same-sex couples do not have specific rights which apply exclusively to them, but they are more likely than heterosexual couples to use alternative methods, such as surrogacy, adoption or IVF.
Employees using a surrogate have the right to attend two antenatal appointments with the birth mother (unpaid leave). Adoption leave and adoption pay criteria are the same as for heterosexual couples with the primary adopter entitled to adoption leave and the other parent entitled to paternity leave.
Maternity leave and shared parental leave rules are the same for heterosexual or homosexual birth mothers.
If employers are serious about growing a diverse and inclusive company culture, they will need to develop inclusion policies and strategies for supporting LGBT employees. For more information on sexual orientation discrimination, see the ACAS guide for employers here.
Flexible working (any employee, not just parents)
All employees, including parents and carers, have the legal right (under the Employment Rights Act 1996) to request flexible working after 26 weeks employment. An employee can only make a statutory request once in any 12-month period.
It can be an overwhelming time for mothers returning to work after having a baby. Many mothers returning to work can find the pressure of managing work and childcare too much.
Your employee has the right to request a temporary or permanent change of hours, days of work or to do some work from home. Your employee is still employed during maternity, paternity or periods of parental leave, so these weeks of leave count towards continuous employment.