Do parents have different rights in the workplace?

Having a new arrival in the family can completely change your whole perspective on life. Suddenly, this little bundle of joy is not only the centre of your world, but it pushes other aspects of your life to one side as well, including work. With so many people reconsidering their work/life balance not just because they’ve become a new parent, but because of the effects of home working during lockdown, it’s important to know exactly what your rights are as a parent.

Are you allowed to take time off? Is that time off paid or unpaid? And what if your boss decides to say no when you ask for parental leave?

What are your rights?

Being a working parent is tough, but despite a raft of legislation designed to make it easier to get that work/life balance right, many parents don’t actually know what they’re entitled to, or what kind of parental leave they can take, and when. Research has found that 41% of parents didn’t know they could take unpaid leave to look after their children, and 75% of those asked had never taken advantage of it, even if they were aware of the entitlement.

It seems that the question of parental rights in the workplace is confusing, contradictory, and in many cases, as clear as mud. The talk in the press of the proposal to scrap shared parental leave hasn’t helped matters, and has led to concern that parents’ rights in the workplace are being eroded from the top down.

However, it doesn’t have to be, and the rights of parents to take paternal leave are enshrined in legislation. They boil down to the following:

Maternity leave

All women who are employees are fully entitled to a total of 52 weeks’ maternity leave. If you take just half of that and return to your job after six months then it must be under the same terms and conditions as when you took your leave. So that means the same wage, the same entitlements, and the same position as before.

If you return to work after more than six months then you can return to your old position, unless your employer can establish it is ‘not reasonably practicable’ for you to do so. In that case, your employer must offer you an alternative position with similar pay, entitlements and conditions.

Under maternity leave, a woman is entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay as long as she has worked for the employer before she became pregnant and continues to be employed up to 15 weeks before the baby’s due date. Maternity pay (at the time of writing) is 90% of your earnings for the first six weeks, then 90% or £151.97/week (whichever is lower) for 33 weeks.  However, check your contract of employment as some employers offer more generous contractual maternity pay.

Paternity leave

Fathers/partners who are employed are entitled to paternity leave, but there are caveats – you must have worked for your employer continuously for 26 weeks at the end of the 15th week before the baby is due. Leave is two weeks, and you must take it between the day of the birth and up to 56 days after. You’ll get Statutory Paternity Pay of 90% of your average earnings or £151.97/week, whichever is the lesser amount.

Shared parental leave

This is the one that many people find confusing, but shared parental leave is a right for employed parents as long as both parents are working. If one parent is self-employed then they still qualify for shared parental leave.

The leave can be taken at any time during the baby’s first year, but remember that the mother will already have two weeks of compulsory maternity leave, so shared parental leave covers 50 weeks leave and 37 weeks of pay that can be shared.

Shared parental leave is triggered by the mother cutting her maternity leave short so the father or partner can take the balance. The pay is the same as maternity and paternity leave statutory pay (i.e. the capped amount of £151.97 per week).

With only around 6% of parents taking full advantage of the opportunity to take shared parental leave, it is a massively under-used resource for new parents. It should be noted that scrapping shared parental leave is now being considered due to the lack of uptake, and different options being considered.

Dealing with the unexpected

In addition to maternity and paternity leave, parents are also entitled to time off to look after their child. If you have worked for your employer for over one year, you can take up to 18 weeks’ unpaid leave until your child reaches 18. Employers and parents should work together to agree how and when this can be taken.

Additionally, parents are entitled to emergency unpaid leave for dependants should a child fall sick or childcare arrangements fall through unexpectedly. Generally, this would only be expected to last for one or two days.

Talk to an employment law expert

If you’re not sure of how the rules apply to you, or you have an issue with an employer who may be preventing you from taking full advantage of paid and unpaid leave options, talk to an employment law specialist today.