Bringing up baby

From the pregnancy test and morning sickness through to the birth and breast-feeding, there's plenty to get to grips with when you have a baby. Your job shouldn't be among your worries, though and new maternity rights are set to make it much easier to find out exactly what you're entitled to in terms of leave and pay.

The new rules - part of the Work and Families Act - came into force at the beginning of April 2007 and apply to the mothers of babies that were due on or after 1 April 2007, even if the baby arrived earlier.

"Now, all female employees are automatically entitled to take 52 weeks maternity leave", explains Prisca Bradley, a legal adviser with Darbys Solicitors in Oxford. This 52-week period is split into two sections - the first 26 weeks are known as 'ordinary maternity leave' (OML), while the second 26 weeks are 'additional maternity leave' (AML).

Perhaps more pressing than how long you can take off, however, is how much pay you'll receive while on maternity leave. Again, the new rules are more generous than the old ones. While pre-April 2007 mums were entitled to statutory maternity pay (SMP) for 26 weeks, you will now receive SMP for 39 weeks.

"For the first six weeks you'll receive 90% of your normal average earnings," says Kerry Waters, associate solicitor with Clarion Solicitors in Leeds. "After this, you'll be paid at the lower of the statutory rate (£117.18 a week for 2008/09) or 90% of your average earnings."

New rules

Your average earnings are based on the amount you received in the eight weeks before the end of the 15th week before your baby is due. "If you're paid a bonus in this time this will be factored in too," says Prisca Bradley. Whatever you receive will be subject to tax and national insurance. And if pension contributions are deducted from your salary these will continue to be taken from your SMP.

To qualify for maternity leave and pay you need to notify your employer by the end of the 15th week before your baby is due - although, in practice, most mums-to-be will tell their employers before this point to take advantage of their rights during pregnancy.

Although these are the statutory minimum rights, many employers are more generous. Where this is the case, it's worth checking your contract. "Terms vary, and an increasing number of employers now include clauses stating that you have to pay the extra back if you don't return," says Emma Hawksworth, partner in the employment department at law firm Russell Jones and Walker. Your employer is within its rights to ask for the money back if you don't return to work, but it's unlikely you'd be expected to repay it in one lump sum.

KIT days

Another new initiative is 'keeping in touch' or KIT days, where you can go into the workplace either to work or for training or team-building days. You can have a maximum of 10 KIT days during your maternity leave. As these days are voluntary, the law hasn't been overly prescriptive. Bradley explains: "Although your SMP won't be affected, it's up to your employer whether they pay you extra. Some may prefer to offer time off in lieu following your return to work."

You will also build up holiday entitlement during your maternity leave. During OML - that is, for the first 26 weeks - you'll build up leave in line with your contract of employment. After this you'll get statutory leave, which is 20 days a year. You won't automatically get a right to carry holidays into a new leave year, however, so it's worth working out whether you need to take the extra holiday before you go on maternity leave.

While you're on maternity leave you also have a right to apply for promotion, but you can also be made redundant. "You have additional rights if this happens," says Hawksworth. "If there's an alternative role your employer can offer to employees being made redundant, you'll be at the head of the queue."

Returning to work

You can return to work at any time during the 52 weeks, although the first two weeks - or four if you work in a factory - are compulsory. Your employer will automatically assume you are taking the full 52 weeks leave and if you want to return earlier you will need to give them eight weeks notice - an increase from the previous 28 days. If you decide you don't want to return at all, then you'll need to give the notice stipulated in your employment contract.

When you return can affect your rights at work. "While you have a right to return to the same job following OML, this is not an absolute right following AML," says Adam Fuge, employment partner at law firm Matthew Arnold & Baldwin. "Your employer can offer you a suitable alternative role."

When you return, you also have a right to request flexible working - for example, a change in hours or a job share. You can make one application a year and it has to be in writing.

Although the rules on leave entitlement and pay are straightforward, some of the other areas, such as flexible working, aren't so simple. But if your employer doesn't follow the rules you have a right to appeal.

"The first thing you should do is follow your company's internal grievance policy, as this may resolve the issue," advises Sadiq Vohra, a solicitor and head of employment law at MWR Solicitors in Lancashire.

If this fails, you can take your employer to an employment tribunal.

Fathers' rights

The government recognises that fathers have an important part to play in bringing up a baby and introduced rights for them in 2003. These are:

  • Up to two weeks leave, providing these are continuous and within the first 56 days of the baby's life
  • Statutory paternity pay during this leave (£117.18 a week for 2008/09)
  • A right to request flexible working to look after the child
  • To qualify for leave and statutory paternity pay you must have been working for your employer for at least 26 weeks at the end of the 15th week before the baby is due. Additionally, you must also notify your employer at least 15 weeks before the baby is due.

More information, including an interactive tool to work out your rights, can be found on the Directgov website

Your rights during pregnancy

On top of your rights to paid leave, you also have additional rights before you go on maternity leave. For starters, you are entitled to take 'reasonable' time off to attend antenatal classes and health checks during your pregnancy.

Your employer also has to take your health and safety into consideration. This assessment will identify any risks and enable changes to be made, where appropriate. As an example, if you do a job where you're on your feet your employer could provide a stool or move you to another suitable role. You can also take legal action if you consider that your employer is putting your health at risk.

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