Parental Benefits and Maternity Leave in the U.K.

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People often complain about the lack of mandated paid maternity leave in the United States. Truthfully, it has one of the worst policies for expectant parents among all developed countries; the only recourse people have is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which offers minimal, unpaid leave to people who need to care for loved ones, including new children.

However, while the United Kingdom does offer paid maternity leave, many U.K. citizens aren’t particularly happy with it. In fact, in 2019, UNICEF ranked the UK as one of the least family-friendly countries in Europe at 28 out of 31, just ahead of Cyprus, Greece and Switzerland (Sweden came in first). Paid parental leave was one of the chief factors in determining the rankings. 

How does maternity leave work in the U.K.?

The most common type of maternity leave in the U.K. is Statutory Maternity Leave. Under this law, eligible employees (read on for eligibility requirements) may take up to 52 weeks or one year of maternity leave. The first 26 weeks are considered “Ordinary Maternity Leave,” while the remaining 26 weeks are considered “Additional Maternity Leave.”

Most workers are required to take at least two weeks of maternity leave after the baby’s birth, while factory workers must take four weeks. Unless the child is born early, employees can take their leave up to 11 weeks before the week of the baby’s expected birth.

During this time, employees’ rights, including Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) based on the structure below, holiday exemptions and the ability to return to their job, must be protected. 

Are U.K. employees paid during their maternity leave?

Under SMP, eligible employees must be paid for up to 39 of their maternity leave. For the first six weeks, they are paid up to 90% of their average weekly earnings, and for the other 33 weeks, they are paid £148.68 of 90% of their average weekly earnings — whichever amount is less. Some types of employees, including educational and agency workers, have different rules.

Employers may offer different maternity leave structures, provided the packages are more generous than the legal U.K. requirements. Employers who offer more than the required amount must clearly outline their policies to all employees.

This calculator helps workers determine how much maternity leave and payment to which they are entitled under SMP. 

Special circumstances.

The above policies apply to most eligible employees. However, there are some circumstances under which they may differ.

• Early birth.

In the case of the baby’s early birth, maternity leave will begin the day after the baby is born. Employees are required to furnish a birth certificate or other document with the birthday verified by the medical professional who delivers the baby. Employers must confirm in writing the actual dates of maternity leave.

• Premature birth.

Employees whose babies are delivered 15 weeks or more before their due dates will need to recalculate maternity leave.

• Death of the baby.

If the baby is stillborn after the 24th week of pregnancy or dies after birth, the employee is still entitled to maternity leave. 

Who is eligible for maternity leave in the UK?

To take statutory maternity leave, you must have an employment contract of any length of time and provide the right amount of notice to your employer.

To receive SMP, you must be on the employer’s payroll in the 15th week before your baby’s expected birth. This is known as the “qualifying week.” You must have been employed without interruption for at least 26 prior to this time and provide the correct notice and proof of your pregnancy — usually, a maternity certificate (MATB1 certificate) or letter from a doctor or midwife issued 20 weeks prior to your due date. You must furnish proof of pregnancy within 21 days of the start of your maternity leave, although employers are entitled to waive this requirement. Employers who receive proof of the employee’s due date 13 weeks after the start of their SMP are not required to pay.

You are also required to earn at least £118 a week before taxes in a relevant period of eight weeks.

Again, special circumstances may alter SMP eligibility and rules. 

Can I get maternity leave if I quit my job or am self-employed in the U.K.?

Workers who are not entitled to SMP may receive Maternity Allowance for up to 39 weeks. This includes people who recently left their jobs. It also applies to:

• Self-employed workers who pay Class 2 National Insurance

• People who are not otherwise eligible for SMP

The rules also stipulate that you must have been employed or self-employed for at least 26 weeks of the 66 prior to the baby’s due date and earning at least £30 per week in 13 of those weeks, though they don’t need to be consecutive. People who stopped working, held different jobs or were unemployed may still qualify.

How much maternity leave do you receive for Maternity Allowance?

Typically, workers receive either 14 or 39 weeks of maternity allowance depending on their eligibility. Learn more about the eligibility requirements.

Workers can also use the maternity entitlement calculator for maternity allowance via the UK government website to determine their expected entitlement and earnings.

Can you be fired while on maternity leave?

It is considered discrimination to fire someone while she is on maternity leave. However, you can be made redundant — or laid off — while on maternity leave, provided that your employer actually must reduce the number of employees and the decision has nothing to do with your pregnancy. If this occurs, you are entitled to the rights and benefits associated with this type of termination, including redundancy pay.

Your other rights, such as raises, holiday pay and others are also ensured while you are on maternity leave. 

If you meet the requirements and deadlines, in almost every case, your employer must grant you maternity leave. If not, it’s a good idea to inform your employer about your rights, ask for an explanation and file a claim of discrimination if they fail to rectify the problem. 

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