Pregnancy can be a stressful enough time for any woman without them having to worry about dangers at work as well. While there are clear laws in place to protect new and expectant mums, many employers don’t know what they should be doing or are ignoring their legal responsibilities.
Since the crisis began
Of those workers in our survey that did have a health and safety risk assessment:
We also found examples of good practice from employers. Over a quarter of women who raised their safety concerns with their employer said adjustments were made such as increased homeworking or being redeployed to a non-public facing role.
My employer sent me home a week before lockdown with my PC, which he put in my car for me. I have had exceptional support from my employer throughout the pregnancy.
However, a significant number of pregnant women (46 per cent) said their employer took no action to address the risks or to adjust working conditions to ensure they were not put at risk. This is in breach of a pregnant woman’s legal rights. Employers are legally required to reduce or remove risks to a pregnant woman’s health. If this cannot be done, she has a right to be offered suitable alternative work, on the same rate of pay, or to have her working conditions adjusted. If none of these measures are possible, she should be suspended on full pay, based on her usual earnings, until the risk is gone. 16
The TUC has warned the government that employers are routinely flouting this law. 17. Our research has uncovered that employers are wrongly forcing pregnant women to take unpaid leave, to go on sick leave when they are not sick, to start their maternity leave early or tell them they must work despite the risk to their health. This has an immediate impact on women’s income, leading to a substantial, if not total, loss of income.
I was being told that [my public-facing role] would be enforced and I could not refuse to do the job. I asked to work from home but was told there was nothing for me to do. The ward had known COVID patients and six members of staff had taken unwell with the virus. I’ve had four consecutive miscarriages before this pregnancy. My GP signed me off sick, I’m on my third month off now.
My boss insisted that I come into the office after the government had announced that pregnant women were on the vulnerable list. I suggested working from home (which is completely possible) but he wouldn’t allow it. I had to take unpaid leave because I was too scared to go into the office.
Our findings show that low-paid women in our survey are nearly twice as likely as median to high earners to have been wrongly forced out of work and to have lost pay. 28 per cent of low-paid pregnant women told us they were forced out of the workplace on unpaid leave, sick leave or early maternity leave compared to 17 per cent of median to high earners.
This has a huge impact on the household incomes of low-paid women, at a time when most families’ household budgets are under significant pressure preparing for a new baby alongside the wider household financial pressures of the Covid-19 crisis.
Being forced out of the workplace also has consequences for mums’ incomes during maternity leave. Given the low level of statutory sick pay, 18 and the consequences of taking unpaid leave, a woman’s eligibility for statutory maternity pay (SMP) could be negatively impacted if she has to take unpaid leave or sick leave before maternity leave, instead of being sent home on full pay as per her legal entitlement. Should her average income fall below the SMP qualifying threshold (£118 per week) during pregnancy an expectant mum becomes ineligible for SMP. This could result in women unfairly missing out on thousands of pounds of their income as women would then only be eligible for maternity allowance (MA).
Not only would this deny women their entitlement to the enhanced rate of SMP, 90 per cent of average earnings, but it can also leave low-paid women worse off as MA is calculated differently to SMP under universal credit. MA is treated as unearned income, whereas SMP is regarded as earned income resulting in a lower award, potentially up to £5,000 a year. This lack of parity is unjustifiable and denies women on the lowest income the financial support that their higher-earning peers receive.
The government must ensure employers are not breaking the law. The government should take immediate proactive steps to make it clear to employers that pregnant and breastfeeding women have the right to suspension on full pay based on their usual earnings, if risks cannot be removed, reduced or working conditions cannot be temporarily adjusted.
Trade unions will continue to safeguard the health and wellbeing of women in the workplace and we want to see women having much stronger rights to influence their working lives. The government should introduce new rights to make it easier for women to negotiate collectively with their employer , including simplifying the process that workers must follow to have their union recognised by their employer for collective bargaining and enabling unions to scale up bargaining rights in large, multi-site organisations. Unionised workplaces are safer and more equal than non-unionised workplaces. 19 Workers are much less likely to express job-related anxiety in unionised workplaces than comparable non-unionised workplaces; the difference is particularly striking for pregnant women and those with caring responsibilities.20
The government should work with trade unions and the relevant regulatory bodies to ensure new and expectant mums have confidence that as the crisis continues, their health and that of their unborn baby will not be put at unnecessary risk. All employers are required to carry out a specific Covid-19 risk assessment, developed in consultation with unions and workers. This should be agreed with the staff trade union, where there is one, and be approved by one of the UK’s 100,000 trade union health and safety reps, or by a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector, to make sure that it is robust. These assessments must take explicit account of the risks faced by new or expectant mums.
The relevant regulatory bodies, such as the Health and Safety Executive, should also play their part. We would like to see the HSE act with urgency on the findings in this report to safeguard pregnant women and ensure they stay safe at work. The HSE could support employers in meeting their requirements by providing model risk assessments for particular sectors and occupations where there is increased risk during the Covid-19 crisis, starting with the health and social care sectors. It should aim to do this within the next three months.
The government should also review its own decision- and policy-making to ensure it is not unfairly disadvantaging pregnant women and new mums. The specific circumstances of pregnant women and new mums has been consistently overlooked in guidance on the job retention scheme (JRS), self-employment income support scheme (SEISS) and in the ‘working safely during coronavirus’ guidance, with little proactive work by government undertaken highlight the specific rights and entitlements of parents and carers during the crisis. This has created additional and unnecessary risk and disadvantage for new mums and their families. Self-employed mums who have recently taken maternity leave are at a significant disadvantage compared to their peers in the self-employment income support scheme. These mums lose out because their time out of the workplace is not disregarded when calculating their entitlement to support based on taxable profits over the last three years. The financial cost of rectifying this mistake and the lack of parity for mums on maternity allowance would be extremely low for government but it would make a massive difference to women and their families.
The government has latterly set out to employers that parents who cannot access childcare are eligible for furlough, but with the scheme set to close to new entrants on 10 June any new mum set to return from maternity leave who finds herself without childcare after this date will not be eligible for furlough. This must be urgently rectified.
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