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Pregnant and worried about coronavirus? Here's what you need to know

Published date
Government guidance classifies pregnant women as part of the ‘vulnerable people’ group who should observe “social distancing measures”. What does this mean for pregnant women at work?
Pregnant worker

On Monday 23 March, the government announced new measures to combat COVID-19.
Everyone, including pregnant women, should stay at home and stop all but essential contact with other people outside of their home.

This includes:

  • Only going outside for food, health reasons or work (where this absolutely cannot be done from home)
  • Staying 2 metres (6ft) away from other people
  • Washing your hands as soon as you get home

This advice has significant implications for pregnant women who are told their job cannot be done from home, whose employer is not able to put reasonable safe working measures into place and/or whose travel to work prevents them from being able to maintain appropriate social distance.

What are my rights at work?

There is a legal framework that employers must act within regarding pregnant employees and breastfeeding mothers.

Employers have a legal obligation to assess the workplace risks for pregnant employees and their unborn children, and breastfeeding mothers who have returned to work.

They must keep these risks under review as circumstances change and as pregnancy progresses, if applicable. They should follow these four steps if risks, such as exposure to COVID-19, are identified:

  1. They must try to remove or prevent your exposure to risks.
  2. If that is not possible, they should temporarily adjust your working conditions to allow you to work from home.
  3. If that is not possible, you should be offered suitable alternative employment at the same rate of pay if available.
  4. If none of this is possible, they must suspend you from work on full pay for as long as necessary to protect your health and safety or that of your baby. Your full pay should be based on your usual earnings, not pay based on your contractual hours.

If there is a health and safety risk which prevents you from carrying out your role and you cannot be redeployed, you should be suspended on 100% of your usual pay.

If however you are furloughed because there is no specific health and safety risk but your employer is affected for example by a lack of demand or through carrying out non-essential work, you should be furloughed on the same terms as other non-pregnant colleagues.

If your employer tries to force you to go to work or disciplines you for not going to work, this could amount to unlawful pregnancy discrimination.

If risks cannot be removed or prevented and suitable alternative work cannot be found, pregnant workers should not be put onto sick pay. If this is the case for you currently (i.e. steps 1 to 3 are not possible), you should be moved onto suspension on full pay.

Statutory Sick Pay could affect your eligibility for Statutory Maternity Pay as your average income could fall below the qualifying threshold – the Lower Earnings Limit is £118 per week. This is calculated over an eight-week qualifying period between weeks 18 to 26 of the pregnancy.

Am I protected from unfair treatment, dismissal and redundancy?

You’re protected by law against unfair treatment and dismissal if it’s because of your pregnancy and maternity, no matter how long you’ve worked for your employer.

This means if you’re dismissed while pregnant or on maternity leave, your employer must put the reason for your dismissal in writing.

If your dismissal can be linked to your pregnancy or maternity, you could claim unfair dismissal and discrimination at an employment tribunal.

You should not be unfairly selected for furloughing or redundancy while pregnant or on maternity leave.

If you are made redundant while you are on maternity leave, you must be offered any suitable alternative vacancy first – in preference to other redundant employees. If your employer does not do this, your dismissal can be automatically unfair. If you are made redundant before going on maternity leave you should be treated the same as your colleagues. If redundancy decisions are made because of your pregnancy or pregnancy related sickness, this would be unlawful pregnancy discrimination.

If you are a trade union member, we would encourage you to talk to your workplace rep as soon as possible. Your other rights are not affected. For a list of them, please see the ACAS website.

What can trade unions do?

Pregnancy can be a stressful enough time for any woman without also having to worry about any dangers presented by her work which is why every workplace needs to have in place clear procedures that ensure that any risks to new or expectant mothers are properly controlled and that women feel that any concerns they have are properly addressed.

To support pregnant women in your workplace, reps and officials can:

  • Ensure employers are complying with their legal obligations under the health and safety framework,
  • Monitor the treatment of pregnant workers and those on maternity leave to ensure their rights are observed,
  • Speak to pregnant members about their specific needs and concerns, and check that no pregnant women have been incorrectly moved onto sick pay,
  • Ensure employers are complying with the law when they suspend pregnant workers on full pay by paying them their usual earnings, not pay based on their contractual hours

For more general advice and support in being effective at negotiating with employers, read our reps guidance here.

What should the government do?

The TUC are concerned that some employers are flouting the law, therefore we are urging the government to protect pregnant women’s income, jobs and health.

We want the Government to take the following steps:

  1. If pregnant workers cannot work because of health and safety risks, the law stipulates they should be suspended on full pay. Government should extend the job retention scheme so that employers are able to reclaim 80% of these workers’ wages. However, it is a legal requirement that employers continue to pay the affected pregnant workers full pay.
  2. Take active steps to raise awareness of existing legal protections for pregnant workers and to reassure pregnant women they are fully protected from pregnancy and maternity discrimination

The TUC is calling for these measures to apply to all pregnant workers, including those in part-time, agency or insecure work and those who qualify as self-employed.

This action must be part of a broader strategy to protect the health and safety of people at work, including stronger government guidance (underpinned by regulation) on the safety measures all employers must give consideration to now and new powers (via a tripartite network, involving employers, unions and the HSE) for government to compel employers who do not follow these steps to close.

This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union or an independent advisor before taking any action.

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