Maternity leave

All pregnant employees are entitled to take maternity leave of up to one year in total. You will need to plan cover for as much of this time as your employee takes.

Although your employee doesn’t have to take the full 52 weeks’ leave, she must take a minimum of two weeks’ leave after her baby is born, or four weeks’ leave if she’s working in a factory.

Bear in mind that occasionally an employee may need to start her maternity leave early and without warning so it’s a good idea to have plans in place for this eventuality.

What is Ordinary Maternity Leave?

All pregnant employees are entitled to Ordinary Maternity Leave (OML), which lasts for 26 weeks.

OML is considered a normal working period for issues such as promotion, seniority and length of service. Your employee should continue to receive contractual benefits, such as pay rises (on her return to work), bonus payments, pension rights, holiday entitlement, private health schemes and the use of a company car.

Your employee is entitled to resume the same job when she returns to work, so even if you prefer the arrangements you have made to cover her maternity leave, you must return her to her post. 

What is Additional Maternity Leave?

Additional Maternity Leave (AML) also runs for 26 weeks and starts on the day after OML ends. Unless your employee tells you otherwise, assume that she wants to take AML and plan to cover her absence accordingly.

During AML, your employee is still entitled to her contractual rights and to return to her original job, unless it is not reasonably possible – if the role no longer exists, for example. In this case, though, she must be offered suitable alternative work with at least the same terms and conditions as her original job.

When should my employee let me know about her plans?

Legally, your employee needs to tell you about her pregnancy, her due date and the date she intends to begin maternity leave at least 15 weeks before her baby is due.

If this isn’t possible – for example, if she didn’t realise she was pregnant – she must tell you as soon as she can.

She doesn’t need to give you this notice in writing, but you can request it. You can also request a copy of her maternity certificate (form MAT B1), which she will be given after 21 weeks of pregnancy.

You then have 28 days to write to your employee, telling her the date her maternity leave will end, based on the dates she has given you.

Your employee is entitled to change her mind about her leaving date and/or her date for returning to work if she gives you eight weeks’ notice in writing.  Although you may be keen to know whether she intends to return to work at all, you can’t ask or pressurise her to confirm this.

When can my employee leave work?

In normal circumstances, the earliest maternity leave can start is 11 weeks before the date the baby is due.

Occasionally, a baby will arrive early or there may be another pregnancy-related reason for her to start maternity leave before this.

If the baby arrives early, maternity leave starts the day after the birth. If your employee is off work with a pregnancy-related illness in the four weeks before her baby is due, her maternity leave will begin automatically at this point.

What happens if the baby dies?

Your employee will still qualify for maternity leave if her baby is stillborn from 24 weeks of pregnancy or if her baby was born alive at any point during her pregnancy.

Covering maternity leave

When you’re planning for your employee’s maternity leave, here are some questions to consider:

  1. Do you need to replace specialised employees on maternity leave?
  2. How much notice will you need to recruit them?
  3. Will you need an extra person or can you share the work among existing staff without causing resentment?
  4. If you need an extra person, can your existing staff focus on skilled work while a temporary replacement focuses on less-skilled work, so avoiding training costs?
  5. Can you retrain an in-house employee? In this case, consider what will happen when your pregnant employee returns to work as you can normally only ask her to return to a different job if her job has genuinely disappeared and there is no alternative employment for her. 
  6. Have you arranged a handover period before your employee’s maternity leave begins?

What should the maternity cover contract say?

If you employ someone to cover your employee’s maternity leave, you may need to use a fixed-term contract.

Someone on a fixed-term contract to cover a post must be treated as well as a permanent staff member who does the same job and their conditions should be the same, unless there is a good reason for making an adjustment to allow for the short nature of the contract.

Fixed-term employees must have the same pay and conditions, the same or equivalent benefits and protection against redundancy or dismissal. You should also ensure they receive information about permanent vacancies in your organisation.

How do I handle handovers?

It’s important to arrange a comprehensive handover to the person or people who will be taking on your pregnant employee’s duties while she’s on maternity leave.

Ensure that you’re fully up to date with her workload, especially if she keeps a lot of information in her head, so that you know exactly what needs to be covered. Make sure you know the names and numbers of her key work contacts, and ask her where she keeps all her relevant files and information.

You’ll need this information so that you can redistribute her workload successfully or hand it over to whoever is covering her role.

What are keeping-in-touch (KIT) days?

Your relationship with your employee continues throughout her maternity leave. Before she leaves, agree with her how you will stay in touch while she is away.

If you and your employee agree, she can do up to 10 days’ work during her maternity leave. These are called ‘keeping-in-touch’ (KIT) days and can be used for her to do her usual job, for training or to attend events.

You can pay her for these days without affecting her right to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP).

What if she becomes pregnant again during maternity leave?

If this happens, your employee is entitled to another period of leave with the same terms and conditions as if she had become pregnant for the first time. This is the same whether she is on OML or AML when she becomes pregnant again.

She will also be entitled to return to her original job at the end of the second period of maternity leave or, if that’s not possible, to another suitable job if one is available, with at least the same terms and conditions.