Plain English Guide to British Employment Law
The basics of pregnancy and work
Pregnant employees have four key employment law rights:
- paid time off for antenatal care
- maternity leave
- maternity pay benefits
- protection against unfair treatment or dismissal
Employers also have certain employment law obligations to ensure the health and safety of pregnant employees.
Telling your employer that you are pregnant
You must tell your employer that you are pregnant at least 15 weeks before the beginning of the week when your baby is due. If this isn’t possible, for example because you didn’t realise you were pregnant, you must tell your employer as soon as possible. You should also tell them when you want to start your Statutory Maternity Leave and Pay.
However, it is a good idea to tell your employer earlier, because it will let them plan around your maternity leave and carry out their legal obligations to you. This is particularly important if there are any health and safety issues. You cannot take paid time off for antenatal appointments until you have told your employer you are pregnant.
Time off for antenatal care and employment law
All pregnant employees, however long they have been in their jobs, are entitled to reasonable time off work for antenatal care. Any time off must be paid at your normal rate of pay. It is unlawful for your employer to refuse to give you reasonable time off for antenatal care or to pay you at your normal rate of pay.
Your employer can ask for evidence of antenatal appointments from the second appointment onwards. If asked you should show your employer a medical certificate showing you’re pregnant and an appointment card or some other written evidence of your appointment.
Antenatal care may include relaxation or parent craft classes as well as medical examinations, if these are recommended by your doctor. If you can, try to avoid taking time off work when you can reasonably arrange classes or examinations outside working hours.
Fathers-to-be and time off for antenatal appointments
Fathers do not have an employment law right to time off to accompany their partners to antenatal appointments as the right to paid time off only applies to pregnant employees. However, many companies recognise how important a time this is and let their employees either take paid time off or make up the time later.
Having a child through IVF (in vitro fertilisation) – employment law
It is unlawful sex discrimination for employers to treat a woman less favourably because she is undergoing IVF treatment or intends to become pregnant. You will be entitled to paid time off for antenatal care only after the fertilised embryo has been implanted.
Health and safety law for pregnant employees
Some workplace hazards can affect pregnancy at a very early stage or even before conception, so employers must think of the health of women of child bearing age, not just wait until you tell your employer that you’re pregnant.
Your employer, as part of their normal risk assessment, must consider if any work is likely to present a particular risk to women of child bearing age. You should tell your employer that you are pregnant as early as possible so that they can identify if any further actions are needed.
Risk assessments and pregnancy – employment law
When you tell your employer that you are pregnant your employer should review their risk assessment for your specific work and identify any changes that are necessary to protect you and your unborn baby’s health. Your employer should involve you in the process and continue to review the assessment as your pregnancy progresses to see if any adjustments are necessary.
These risks might be caused by:
- lifting or carrying heavy loads
- standing or sitting for long periods
- exposure to toxic substances
- long working hours
Your employer must then either remove the risk or remove you from being exposed to it (for example, by offering you suitable alternative work). If neither of these is possible, your employer should suspend you from work on full pay.
If you think you are at risk
If you think you are at risk, but your employer doesn’t agree, you should first talk to your health and safety representative or a trade union official. You can also go directly to your employer to explain your concerns. If your employer still refuses to take action, you should talk to your doctor or consider making a complaint to the HSE:
If you are off work for a pregnancy-related illness during the four weeks before your baby is due, your maternity leave and Statutory Maternity Pay (from your employer) or Maternity Allowance (from Jobcentre Plus) will start automatically, no matter what you had agreed with your employer.
Compulsory maternity leave
Even if you have decided not to take Statutory Maternity Leave, you must take two weeks off after your baby is born, or four weeks if you work in a factory. This is called compulsory maternity leave.
Discrimination and pregnancy
It is unlawful sex discrimination for employers to treat women less favourably because of their pregnancy or because they take maternity leave. For example, this includes:
- trying to cut your hours without your permission
- suddenly giving you poor staff reports
- giving you unsuitable work
- making you redundant because of your pregnancy (you might still be made redundant for other reasons)
- treating days off sick due to pregnancy as a disciplinary issue
Your employer can’t change your employment terms and conditions while you are pregnant without your agreement. If they do, they will be in breach of contract.