Labour has called on the government to take urgent action to ensure that women who have been pregnant during the pandemic do not have their maternity pay wrongly docked, warning that many could lose out on thousands of pounds.
When the lockdown was imposed in March, pregnant women were added to the list of people seen as clinically vulnerable.
Where workplaces were unable to be made Covid-secure, pregnant staff unable or unwilling to work should have been sent home on full pay. However, according to research by the Labour party, many were instead put on statutory sick pay (SSP).
To qualify for statutory maternity pay (SMP) – the government support to new mothers paid over 39 weeks – pregnant women must have earned at least £120 a week on average during an eight-week lead-up period. But SSP is just £95.85 a week, meaning women who have been shielding on that level of pay for eight weeks or more would miss out on SMP.
In April, the government changed the regulations to make sure pregnant women and expectant fathers did not lose out on maternity or paternity pay if they had been furloughed on 80% of their normal wage and had seen their pay fall below £120 a week. Labour is calling for the same change to be made for sick pay.
Andy McDonald, Labour’s shadow employment rights minister, said: “It is wrong that pregnant women have not only lost income as a result of being wrongly sent home on sick pay rather than their full wage, but have had their maternity pay slashed as well.
“Covid-19-related spells on statutory sick pay should not mean women have their maternity pay cut, and the government needs to act now, end this injustice and protect pregnant women’s rights.”
SMP gives a new mother 90% of their average weekly earnings for six weeks, then £151.20, or still 90% of average earnings if this is lower, for the next 33 weeks.
Ros Bragg of the charity Maternity Action noted that while SMP is not counted against benefits such as universal credit, this is not the case for the alternative state help for new mothers – maternity allowance – meaning woman could face “a triple whammy of reduced income”.
She said: “In April, ministers rightly amended the maternity pay regulations to prevent furlough pay affecting entitlement to SMP, and they should have addressed the issue of women wrongly forced on to SSP at the same time.”
Labour has highlighted the cases of some women who are to lose their entitlement to maternity pay. One, Selma, works in a pharmacy and felt unwilling to do a job involving contact with the public. Her employer gave her the choice of taking maternity leave early or going on sick pay, so she has been on SSP for four months.
No longer able to claim SMP, she will instead have to seek maternity allowance, but all the money she receives from this will be deducted from her universal credit.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We’re clear that where a pregnant employee has been advised to observe strict social distancing, employers should carry out a risk assessment and take this into account. If the necessary safety measures cannot be put in place, such as adjustments to the job or working from home, they should suspend the pregnant worker on paid leave.
“Employers have to carry out a risk assessment. This is a health and safety requirement, and employers cannot avoid it by expecting their employees to take sick leave or unpaid leave.
“If anyone has lost out financially as a result of their employer not acting in accordance with their legal obligations, they can and should seek redress through the employment tribunal system.”