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What are the basics of maternity leave?

Maternity leave is the right for employees to take up to 12 months of leave after giving birth. To be eligible for leave, the employee must give notice of their pregnancy in a particular form and must specify when they want their leave to start. In some situations, maternity leave can start earlier than planned (eg in some cases when the employee is sick due to a pregnancy-related reason or if they give birth prematurely).

Generally, the earliest maternity leave can start is 11 weeks before the week the child is expected to be born. In some circumstances, maternity leave will start earlier. For example:

  • if the baby is born prematurely, leave starts the day after the child is born

  • if the worker is off work because of a pregnancy-related illness in the 4 weeks before the expected birth week, leave will start automatically

For more information, read Circumstances that can affect maternity pay.

Types of leave

UK maternity leave is divided into 6 months or 'ordinary maternity leave' (OML) followed by 6 months of 'additional maternity leave' (AML). There is no minimum service requirement. If the employee’s child is born on or after 5 April 2015 and they and their partner qualify, the employee may use shared parental leave instead of taking OML and AML in full. The employee can also choose to take OML and AML in full and not use shared parental leave.

Employees with 26 weeks of continuous service who earn more than a set amount (currently £123 per week) are entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP). During the first 6 weeks, SMP is 90% of normal pay. For the remaining 33 weeks, SMP is a fixed statutory rate (£184.03 per week as of 7 April 2024) or 90% of average weekly earnings (whichever is lower). For more information, see the Government’s guidance on maternity pay and leave.

During maternity leave, the Employment contract continues except for pay, and all benefits must continue as normal.

Employees must not be dismissed or subjected to any detriment for taking or requesting maternity leave. Maternity and pregnancy are protected characteristics for discrimination law purposes.

For more information, read Circumstances that can affect maternity pay.

Compulsory maternity leave

If an employee recently had a baby, they must take at least 2 weeks off work after the baby is born. This is called compulsory maternity leave. They must take at least 4 weeks of compulsory leave if they work in a factory. 

After that, it is up to the employee to decide how much leave they wish to take. If they do not wish to take the full maternity leave agreed, they must give at least 8 weeks’ notice that they are returning to work early. The employer is entitled to refuse to pay until the 8-week notice period has ended if the notice was not provided.

They are entitled to return to exactly the same job on the same terms and conditions if they return during or at the end of the OML period. 

Important action points for employers

Consider introducing a Maternity policy that will help managers and staff to understand maternity leave rights and obligations. You should also ensure that the policy includes references to your Data protection policy and Employee privacy notice. For further information, read Data protection and employees.

You must conduct a Health and safety assessment to consider risks to pregnant and breastfeeding employees and their child(ren) and then take action to remove the risks.

When you receive the employee’s formal notification of their pregnancy and intended leave dates, you must reply within 21 days to confirm when the maternity leave is due to end. Otherwise, the employee can change their return to work date without notice.

While employees are on maternity leave, continue to include them in the circulation of information about internal training, vacancies, social events and other opportunities to ensure that they are not prejudiced through taking leave. How much they wish to participate is up to them.

Tricky maternity leave issues

Holiday continues to accrue during maternity leave. Employees and workers are also permitted to carry over any statutory holiday entitlements remaining at the end of a leave year into the next leave year if they’ve been unable to take this holiday due to being on maternity leave.

Pensions and maternity leave are another tricky area. Pension contributions should be maintained during paid maternity leave. If someone is not getting paid during maternity leave, the employer (ie you) still has to make pension contributions during OML (ie the first 26 weeks of maternity leave). You have to continue making pension contributions after OML if this is stated in the contract of maternity policy.

If an employee on maternity leave receives a pay increase, their SMP must be retrospectively adjusted as if the increase had been in effect when their pay was initially calculated.

Take care to adjust performance and bonus targets, where appropriate, to avoid unfairly penalising employees on maternity leave. Pro-rating is normally acceptable. Do not reduce bonuses that are not dependent on work performed (eg loyalty bonuses and some Christmas bonuses).

Where employees take AML, it may not be practicable to have them return to the same job. In this case, they must be offered suitable, alternative employment. Employees who take only OML must always return to the same job unless a redundancy situation has arisen.

Where a redundancy situation arises affecting a woman on maternity leave, Ask a lawyer about offering suitable alternative employment, as this area can be difficult. For more information, read Redundancy and pregnancy or maternity leave.

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