Know Your Rights: Taking Maternity Leave

Pregnant woman writing maternity leave in notebook Shutterstock

Finding out that you’re expecting a baby is great news. Your first reaction will no doubt be one of joy (especially if you’ve been planning to have a baby), but this is soon replaced by the dread of taking time off work.

What if your boss gets funny about you taking maternity leave? What pay will you be entitled to? Will your job be there when you get back? These are all questions that are likely running through your mind, keeping you awake at night.

To help relieve any stress (because that’s not healthy for your little pea), this guide will answer all your questions and inform you on your maternity rights in the workplace.

What Are Your Maternity Rights?

In the UK, pregnant employees are entitled to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave with the option of extending to an extra 26 weeks of unpaid leave, allowing up to a year off work in total – no matter what your length of employment, working hours or income bracket is. What does matter is that you give your employer the correct notice.

Regardless of the amount of leave that you want to take, it’s compulsory to take two weeks after your baby is born (and four if you work in a factory). An additional benefit that workers get in the UK is the option for shared parental leave.

This means that you can share your 52 weeks of maternity leave with your partner, so you can both have the same time off, or you can swap places during that time. You also have the option of taking it in different allowances up to a year of your baby’s birth. If you’re interested in taking shared leave, you’ll need to inform your employer so that they can make the correct arrangements.

In the US, maternity leave differs slightly, and workers who are eligible for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. The law only applies if the company has more than 50 employees and if the worker has been with the company for over a year. Employees at small businesses aren't eligible, and many low-wage workers can't afford to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Some states have moved to address the issue with paid plans of their own, including California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.

What Should You Do Before You Take Maternity Leave?

To claim your right to maternity leave, you must tell your employer no later than 15 weeks before your baby is due – although many choose to advise their employees after the ‘safe period’ of 3 months (it’ll be a little hard to hide a growing bump after this time).

You will need to advise them of when the baby is due and when you plan on starting your leave. You will then need to document this in writing and provide your maternity certificate (MAT B1), which confirms your pregnancy and due date, which will be given to you by your doctor once you’ve reached 21 weeks of pregnancy.

If you choose to change your maternity date later on, you will need to give at least 28 days’ notice. You can start maternity allowance any time from 11 weeks before the beginning of the week your baby's due.

In the USA, if you’re planning to take leave under the FMLA, you must give your employer at least 30 days’ notice, although, again, it would be morally correct to give notice in your second trimester.

What Can You Do During Your Maternity Leave?

While you’re on your maternity, you will keep your usual benefits, including healthcare, pension scheme, annual leave allowance and any performance bonuses or pay raises you’re entitled to. Although there are no rules, it’s advised to keep in touch with your employer and finalise the details for your return.

In the USA, you are protected under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which was passed in 1978 to prohibit sexual discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. Under this law, your employer cannot fire you or lessen your working hours due to your situation. This policy also covers job security, ensuring that you’re allowed to return to the same job after the birth of your baby.

What Is Expected When You Return to Work?

Returning to work after having a baby can be extremely nerve-wracking. If you take the full maternity allowance, you will not need to notify your employers, as you’ll be expected to return to work the day after your leave finishes. If you do choose to return to work before the full 52 (or 12 for the USA) weeks, then you must give at least 8 weeks’ notice. On the other hand, if you feel that you just need more time at home to bond with your little one, you will need to discuss this with your employer to see if you can agree to an extended leave of unpaid absence.

What Statutory Pay Are You Entitled To?

In the UK, new mums receive statutory maternity pay for 39 weeks. For the first 6 weeks, you’ll be paid 90% of your average weekly salary (before tax) by your employer. After this point, you will only be paid £139.58 per week, or 90% of your average weekly earnings if this is a lower amount. If you decided to take the full maternity allowance (52 weeks), the last 13 weeks will be unpaid.

In the US, ‘88% of women are paid nothing in the weeks they take off after having a child,’ as reported by Cosmopolitan. However, many big businesses are creating their own policies, including Facebook which offers a maternity package of four months paid leave to its female employees.

Are You Covered by Health Protection?

Under UK health and safety legislation, employers must take reasonable measures to protect their employees, especially if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Your employers will need to assess your work and ensure that you’re in a safe and comfortable environment. You should not sit down or stand up for too long and should not be exposed to harmful toxins.

If adequate changes cannot be made in your working environment, you’ll be entitled to full suspended pay.

In the US, similar health policies apply. Under the FMLA, your employer should still contribute to your health insurance while you’re out on leave. Depending on your insurance policy, your doctor’s expenses should also be covered under this protection.

Are You Allowed Time Off for Medical Appointments?

You’re legally entitled to take paid time off for doctor’s appointments or antenatal classes while you’re pregnant. If for some medical reason you can’t work a full day in the office, your doctor will advise what the best and safest solution is and will provide you with the relevant documents for your employer. An easy solution could be remote working (if agreed by your manager).

Having a baby is one of the most exciting times in your life, so don’t let the fine print pull you down. It’s important to read your company’s employee handbook and know your employee rights before you approach your boss to let them know your exciting news.

Are you a pregnant or planning to have a baby? If so, have you faced any problems in the workplace because of it? Let us know in the comments section below…