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Know your worker rights while pregnant or as a new mother

Having a child doesn't give employers the opportunity to discriminate against you. Lisa Salmon hears expert advice

Legal steps: pregnant women can’t be discriminated against at work
Legal steps: pregnant women can’t be discriminated against at work

When working women find out they're pregnant, their thoughts will normally centre on their growing baby, rather than their rights at work. But as the pregnancy progresses, or even soon after the baby's born, those rights may become a crucial issue.

Joeli Brearley, founder of support group Pregnant Then Screwed was sacked the day after she told her employer she was expecting her first baby, but didn't take legal action because her pregnancy was high risk and the stress could have harmed her unborn child.

She says the experience had a negative impact on her confidence and mental health, but made her want to help other pregnant women and new mothers who have problems at work.

Mum of two Brearley (39) points out that 54,000 women a year in the UK are pushed out of their job for "daring to procreate", and 77% of working mums encounter discrimination in the workplace.

"When women know their legal rights, and have the confidence to stand up to employers who are treating them unfairly, it's much more likely the discrimination will stop," she says.

Here are Pregnant Then Screwed's top 10 pregnancy and maternity rights, which they say is applicable throughout the UK and Ireland:

1. Automatic year off

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Your employer should assume you'll be taking 52 weeks leave if you don't tell them otherwise. But if you planned to take a full year off and miss work so much you need to go back earlier, just give eight weeks' notice of when you want to return. In Ireland, statutory maternity leave is 42 weeks, with paid leave for the first 26 weeks.

2. Time off to attend antenatal appointments

If you need to go to an antenatal appointment during work time, you have the legal right to do so - you don't need to take leave or try to squeeze the appointments in on your days off. The time you're allowed should include the time needed to travel to the clinic or GP, without loss of pay.

3. Maternity leave redundancy

If you're made redundant during maternity leave, you have the right to be offered a suitable alternative vacancy (if one exists) before it's offered to another employee. You don't have to go in to work for an interview or assessment procedures for any suitable vacancy if you're on maternity leave. In Ireland, you can't be made redundant while on maternity leave. Brearley advises women to speak to HR and be clear on their rights.

4. You're still an employee

Your company must treat you as an employee when you're on maternity leave, so they mustn't discriminate against you by failing to consider you for promotions or a pay rise. Plus, you still have a right to your holiday allowance. You will accrue your holiday entitlement while on maternity leave, and you can use it as you wish. Some tag it on to the end of their maternity leave, and others use the days to help stagger their return to work.

5. Keeping in touch days

In the UK, though not in Ireland, you can do up to 10 keeping in touch days, which help parents stay in the loop at work. You're not legally obliged to attend these and your employer isn't legally obliged to offer them, but you can request to be paid for them if you and your employer decide that they're the way to go.

6. Telling your boss

You can tell your boss your news when you feel it's right for you - although waiting for your first scan is advisable, says Brearley. Don't put it off too long though - you should tell your employer you're pregnant by the 15th week before your due date. In Ireland the only rule about informing your boss is that employees must give at least four weeks' written notice before taking maternity leave.

7. Risk assessment

All employers should carry out a workplace risk assessment. "As a pregnant employee or a returning mum, you aren't an inconvenience and your workplace needs to be a safe place for you and your baby," Brearly says.

If you're pregnant, have given birth in the last six months or are breastfeeding, your employer should make sure your work and working conditions won't put your health or your baby's health at risk.

Employers should do all that's reasonable to remove or reduce any risks. If you're returning to work and are breastfeeding, you should write to your employer to let them know before your first day back. Brearley says: "Make sure you're listened to, and provided with a suitable place to breastfeed or express. Note to employers - that is not the toilet."

8. Discrimination from the start

You can claim discrimination and automatic unfair dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity leave from day one of your employment. If you've been sacked, made redundant, are being bullied or harassed, or are overlooked for promotion or other opportunities because of your pregnancy or maternity leave, you may have a legal case. Brearley stresses: "Don't feel like you're on your own and don't think this is your fault. It's not. Thousands of women have unfortunately been in your shoes."

9. Returning to your job

If you go back to work within 26 weeks, you have the legal right to return to exactly the same job, contractual terms and salary as before. If you return to work after 26 weeks but before 52 weeks, you have the same entitlement unless your employer can prove it wasn't practicable to give you your job back. In this case, your employer must offer you a suitable alternative on the same salary and contractual terms as before. If you're given a different job on return from maternity leave, or are offered different shift patterns, you should seek legal advice if unhappy. In Ireland, if it's not possible for your employer to allow you to return to your original job, they must provide you with an alternative role just as good as your original job.

10. Funding maternity leave

In the UK, Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) is paid for 39 weeks of maternity leave, and to be eligible you must have worked for your employer continuously for at least 26 weeks, into the 'qualifying week' - the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth. You can get SMP even if you don't plan to go back to work, or if you're dismissed or made redundant after the 26th week of pregnancy. If you're not entitled to SMP, you may get Maternity Allowance.

In Ireland, paid leave is 26 weeks, although employers aren't obliged to pay women on maternity leave. When they don't, the state will pay E240 a week maternity benefit.

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