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Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Rights for new and expecting parents

Last updated 10 August 2020.

We have gathered together some of the issues for pregnant workers and new or expecting parents during the coronavirus pandemic. 

*PLEASE FOLLOW ANY GOVERNMENT GUIDANCE OR GUIDANCE SPECIFIC TO YOUR LOCAL AREA ON THE CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) AS IT IS CHANGING DAILY*

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Maternity Action have produced a template letter to give to your employer if you are pregnant and have concerns about your health & safety at work. They have also produced a template letter for agency workers.

You may also find the RCOG (Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) guidance on pregnancy and coronavirus useful.

I am pregnant

I am pregnant. Can I refuse to go to work because of coronavirus?

If your work exposes you to a significantly higher risk of coronavirus than you would be exposed to “outside the workplace” (i.e. in your day-to-day activities), then your employer should suspend you on full pay if there is no work that you can do from home. This would apply if, for example, you are a frontline NHS employee or a care worker where social distancing is not possible. Health and safety law says that if your workplace poses a significantly higher risk to you and your baby’s health than you would be exposed to “outside the workplace” (i.e. in your day-to-day activities), your employer has to:

  1. Temporarily adjust your working conditions to remove the risk; or, if that is not possible,
  2. Offer you suitable alternative work (at the same pay) if available; or, if that is not possible,
  3. Suspend you from work on paid leave for as long as necessary to protect your health and safety, and that of your unborn child.

In its Working Safely During Coronavirus guidance, the government states that expectant mothers “are, as always, entitled to suspension on full pay if suitable roles cannot be found“. The government has published specific guidance for employers in different sectors – see here for links to this sector-specific guidance.

If your workplace does not put you at a significantly higher risk for COVID-19 than other workplaces, but you are at higher risk compared to being at home (as seems likely, given the risks of any travel and any place of employment) we think you are entitled to refuse to come to work, but the law at present is unclear as to whether or not you would be paid.

You could argue that it would be a breach of your employment contract (more specifically, a breach of the mutual duty of trust and confidence) to force you to come to work. But this does not necessarily mean you will continue to get paid (if you cannot work from home). The first legal question is whether you are at a higher risk than “outside the workplace”. “Outside the workplace” usually refers to other things you do in your day to day life – e.g. going to shops, taking public transportation. If the risk at work is not higher than “outside the workplace”, you do not have the right to continue receiving your full pay if you are suspended at home (Managements of Safety and Health at Work Regulation 16 (4)). You could have an argument to say that at the moment, “outside the workplace” means comparing your workplace to home, because in current circumstances, most people who are not going into work (especially those who are pregnant) have been told to stay at home and observe social distancing. You may be able to use this argument to argue that you should be suspended on full pay, but the law is unclear. 

If you are self-employed, you unfortunately do not have the right to have your work adjusted or to be suspended on full pay. If you are self-employed and pregnant, continue to follow government guidance in relation to COVID-19 and social distancing where you can.

For information on financial support see our pages on benefits and tax credits and the Gov.uk list of online benefits calculators. If your employer is being difficult, you might want to use this draft letter for employees prepared by Maternity Action (there is also a draft letter for agency workers).

What if I am a healthcare worker and pregnant. Do I have to work with patients?

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) has published guidance for pregnant healthcare workers. This guidance isn’t binding, but we think that it would be persuasive in asking your employer to either allow you to work from home, or to work in a non-patient facing role. The guidance makes clear that health and safety legislation already in place to protect pregnant workers must be followed. They still distinguish between pregnant women who are less than 28 weeks pregnant, and those who are over 28 weeks pregnant or with underlying health conditions.

The RCOG guidance states at 3.1: “Pregnant women can only continue to work in direct patient-facing roles if they are under 28 weeks’ gestation and if this follows a risk assessment that recommends they can continue working, subject to modification of the working environment and deployment to suitable alternative duties. Pregnant women of any gestation should not be required to continue working if this is not supported by the risk assessment, as per the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSW). If a risk assessment indicates that a pregnant woman under 28 weeks’ gestation can continue to work in a patient facing role, and the woman chooses to do so, she should be supported by her employer. Suitable alternative duties might include remote triage, telephone consultations, governance or administrative roles. ”

This guidance makes very clear that all pregnant women who are working in direct patient facing healthcare roles must be offered a risk assessment. It does not matter how far along you are in your pregnancy. The RCOG guidance says that you can only continue to work in these direct patient facing roles if the risk assessment advises that it is safe to do so. This means that employers must remove any risks (that are greater in the workplace than to what they would be exposed to outside of the workplace), or else you should be offered suitable alternative work. The guidance also makes clear that all pregnant workers should, if possible, avoid working with patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. All those working with COVID-19 patients should wear PPE.

If you are more than 28 weeks pregnant, or you have an underlying health condition such as a heart or lung disease (at any point in your pregnancy), the guidance recommends staying home and working from home or flexibly wherever that is possible. For example, you could offer to take on administrative duties or telephone or videoconferencing consultations. You should be paid your full salary if your employer adjusts your role. You should not be deployed in roles where you are working with patients.

If your employer is being difficult, you might want to use this draft letter  for employees prepared by Maternity Action (there is also a draft letter for agency workers).

Can I take sick leave if I am self-isolating or shielding (even though I am not technically sick)?

Usually, if you stay away from work but aren’t sick, you will not get paid.

But new regulations now say that you can get Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if:

  1. you are self-isolating in accordance with the government’s advice(i.e. because you or someone in your household is displaying symptoms), or 
  2. you have been told to self-isolate by NHS test and trace in England.

You were able to claim SSP if you were shielding in accordance with government guidance because you are deemed to be clinically extremely vulnerable to coronavirus. However, from 1 August, in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and from 16 August in Wales, the shielding scheme will be ‘paused’ (though this may vary in different areas of each nation, depending on very local guidance), meaning you will no longer be able to claim SSP on the basis that you are “shielding”, unless shielding has been extended or re-introduced in your area.   Do remember your doctor could still sign you off as sick even though the shielding scheme has “paused”.

Unless you have a statement from a doctor that you shouldn’t work, you cannot get SSP just because you are worried about catching coronavirus, or members of your household catching it.

  1. If you are self-isolating because you or someone in your household has symptoms of coronavirus, you should be treated as on sick leave and you should get SSPif you qualify. You may also be entitled to additional sick pay from your employer (this will depend on your contract). To make it easier for people to provide evidence to their employer that they need to stay at home due to symptoms in their household, the government have developed an alternative form of evidence to the fit note, called an ‘isolation note’, that you can access online via the NHS website. The government has confirmed that employees will be eligible for SSP from day 1 of sick leave when self-isolating to prevent the spread of coronavirus (i.e. due to symptoms they have, or someone in their household has), rather than day four (the usual rule).
  2. If you are shielding  From 1 August, in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and from 16 August in Wales, the shielding scheme will be ‘paused’ meaning you will no longer receive SSP for shielding, unless it is extended or reintroduced in your area. If you are still unable to work because you are ill, you may still be eligible for SSP, but you will need medical evidence. Note that in different parts of the UK, shielding is likely to be paused and restarted at different points in the summer. It is important to keep up to date with the separate advice for EnglandScotlandWalesand Northern Ireland.

Your employer may have updated their sickness absence policies in light of the coronavirus outbreak. Check with your employer as regards your entitlement to sick pay and also the impact on your sickness record if you need to self-isolate.

You may have been furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and become sick, you will receive your furloughed pay (80% or more of wages) instead of receiving SSP only. 

I’m pregnant and at risk. I’ve been suspended as I cannot work from home. Can my employer start my maternity leave early?

Yes, as your suspension is an absence that’s ‘wholly or partly because of pregnancy’. Like in all pregnancy-related sicknesses, your employer can trigger the start of your maternity leave but only from the 4th week before your baby is due – it does not matter what you previously agreed with your employer.

I’m a pregnant employee who is classed as clinically extremely vulnerable to coronavirus. Can I be put on furlough if I am off work because I am shielding?

From 1 August, in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, shielding is due to be ‘paused’, . In Wales, it is due to be paused from 16 August. However, in different areas of all four nations it may be extended or re-introduced. . It is important to keep up-to-date with the separate rules for EnglandScotlandWales and Northern Ireland, and for your own area. Details of local restrictions for England can be found here.

Even if shielding is paused where you live, if you feel concerned about returning to work, you can request that your employer keep you on furlough.  But bear in mind that in almost all cases, the latest you can be furloughed for the first time is 10 June. (There are exceptions to this, for example, those returning to work following a period of maternity leave – providing your employer has previously used the furlough scheme.)

If you are not sure whether or not you are extremely vulnerable, check the government guidance on shielding. 

Being on furlough will not impact your eligibility for statutory maternity, adoption, paternity, or shared parental pay even if you agreed to a pay cut as part of your furlough agreement.

If your employer refuses to furlough you and you are shielding in accordance with official public health guidance, then you could get Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) If shielding remains in place. You cannot claim SSP once shielding is paused where you live, unless you can get it for another reason (for example, your GP thinks it is not safe for you to return to work). If your employer refuses to furlough you, you may be able to argue that they are discriminating against you, see the question on discrimination on our furlough page

Effect on family-related pay

Will statutory sick pay (SSP) affect my statutory maternity, adoption, shared parental or paternity pay?

Being on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) may affect your entitlement to statutory maternity pay (SMP), statutory adoption pay (SAP), statutory paternity pay (SPP), and statutory shared parental pay (ShPP). This is because whether (and how much) SMP/SPP/SAP/ShPP you receive all depends on how much you earn in your ‘calculation period’.

When is my ‘calculation period’?

For birth parents, the calculation period is the 8-week period (if you are paid weekly) or 2-month period (if you are paid monthly) leading up to the last payday in or before the 15th week before your expected week of childbirth. You must earn an average of at least £120 per week (the lower earnings limit) in this period to qualify for SMP/SPP/ShPP.

For adoptive parents, the calculation period is the 8-week period (if you are paid weekly) or 2-month period (if you are paid monthly) leading up to last payday in or before the week in which you are matched with the child for adoption. You must earn an average of at least £120 per week (the lower earnings limit) in this period to qualify for SAP/SPP/ShPP.

If you are concerned that you may not be earning enough during the calculation period, speak to your HR department or manager to check the dates of your calculation period and consider how you might be able to increase your earnings over this time. For example,

  • you can request to take some annual leave so that you continue to receive your normal wages, and
  • if there is any work that you can do any work from home, then you should be able to do so and receive your normal salary (in line with hours worked).

If your workplace puts you at risk of coronavirus and you are pregnant, then you may be able to argue that your employer should suspend you on full pay instead of sick pay.

For more information on calculating pay when you have had a baby or are adopting, have a look at Working Families’ pages on:

And do remember even if you don’t qualify for SMP you will almost certainly qualify for Maternity Allowance.

Will furlough (80% pay) affect my maternity, adoption, paternity or shared parental pay?

No, being on furlough will not impact your eligibility for:

  • statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance,
  • statutory adoption pay,
  • statutory paternity pay, or
  • statutory shared parental pay.

According to government guidance from 24 April, your eligibility will be based on your usual pay (or what you would have been paid had you not been furloughed).

Your ‘usual pay’ will be the higher of either what you:

  • actually received from your employer while you were on furlough; or
  • would have received from your employer had you not been on furlough.

If you are not sure what you ‘would have received’  had you not been on furlough, a useful starting point is to check what your furlough pay would have been based on. Your employer should also consider additional payments that you would have received, including bonus and commission payments.

Read our page on furlough for more information on how the furlough scheme works. 

Will unpaid leave affect my statutory maternity, adoption, paternity, or shared parental pay?

Being on unpaid leave may affect your entitlement to statutory maternity pay (SMP), statutory adoption pay (SAP), statutory paternity pay (SPP), and statutory shared parental pay (ShPP). This is because whether (and how much) SMP/SPP/SAP/ShPP you receive all depends on how much you earn in your ‘calculation period’.

When is my ‘calculation period’?

For birth parents, the calculation period is the 8-week period (if you are paid weekly) or 2-month period (if you are paid monthly) leading up to the last payday in or before the 15th week before your expected week of childbirth. You must earn an average of at least £120 per week (the lower earnings limit) in this period to qualify for SMP/SPP/ShPP.

For adoptive parents, the calculation period is the 8-week period (if you are paid weekly) or 2-month period (if you are paid monthly) leading up to last payday in or before the week in which you are matched with the child for adoption. You must earn an average of at least £120 per week (the lower earnings limit) in this period to qualify for SAP/SPP/ShPP.

If you are concerned that you may not be earning enough during the calculation period, speak to your HR department or manager to check the dates of your calculation period and consider how you might be able to increase your earnings over this time. For example,

  • you can request to take some annual leave so that you continue to receive your normal wages, or
  • if you can do any work from home, then you should be able to do so and receive your normal salary (in line with hours worked).

If your workplace puts you at risk of coronavirus and you are pregnant, then you may be able to argue that your employer should suspend you on full pay instead of sick pay.

For more information on calculating pay when you have had a baby or are adopting, have a look at Working Families’ pages on:

And do remember even if you don’t qualify for SMP you will almost certainly qualify for Maternity Allowance.

Will sick pay or unpaid leave affect my Maternity Allowance?

Sick leave or unpaid leave will not have much of an effect on your eligibility for Maternity Allowance. It might not affect your Maternity Allowance at all, because you have quite a lot of flexibility to chose the weeks that your eligibility for MA should be based on.

To qualify for Maternity Allowance (MA), you need to have worked (or been employed) for 26 weeks in the 66 weeks leading up to your expected week of childbirth. You also need to earn at least £30 in 13 of those weeks. Employees and self-employed women can claim Maternity Allowance if they are eligible.

If you are an employee, then the time you spend on statutory sick pay (SSP) or on unpaid leave will count towards your 26 weeks of work/employment for MA, so long as you remain employed. And unlike for SMP (where the earnings taken into account relate to a fixed period in your pregnancy), you have more flexibility with MA and can chose the 13 weeks that you have earned the most to calculate your entitlement for MA. So you do not have to use the weeks that you were receiving SSP as evidence for your 13 weeks of ‘earnings’, if you can instead use 13 other weeks from the 66 weeks leading up to your due date where you were earning more.

As long have 26 weeks of work (or employment) in the 66 weeks before your baby is due, and you have earned over £30 in 13 of those weeks, you can claim MA even if you’re currently not working. 

See our page on Maternity Allowance for more information on how your MA is calculated.

Furlough

If I am on furlough, do I still have a right to take maternity, paternity, adoption or parental leave?

If you are put on furlough, you are still entitled to maternity, paternity, adoption or shared parental leave. The furlough scheme does not affect any existing employment rights.

The government clarified on 24 April that being on furlough will not impact your eligibility for Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP), Statutory Paternity Pay (SPP), Statutory Adoption Pay (SAP), Shared Parental Pay (ShPP) or Maternity Allowance (MA). Your eligibility for these will be calculated based on your usual earnings (what you would have been earning had you not been put on furlough), not your furlough pay. 

You cannot receive furlough pay at the same time as your statutory maternity, paternity, adoption, shared parental pay or Maternity Allowance.

If you are receiving enhanced pay for family-related leave, your employer could claim this back from the government through the furlough scheme – see the question below for more information.

Read our page on furlough for more information on how the furlough scheme works. 

I’m receiving enhanced maternity, adoption, paternity or shared parental pay. Can my employer recover my enhanced pay through the furlough scheme?

Yes – according to government guidance, if your employment contract provides for enhanced maternity, adoption, paternity or shared parental pay, your employer can claim this back from the government through the furlough scheme. 

I am due back to work from maternity, adoption, paternity, or shared parental leave. Does that mean that I will not be able to go on furlough when I come back?

No – if you are returning to work from family-related leave, you will be able to go on furlough when you are due back to work. This includes anyone who is returning from maternity, adoption, paternity, shared parental, and parental bereavement leave. In almost all cases, the cut-off date for furlough is 10 June. But the government has confirmed that those returning from family-related leave are an exception and can still access the scheme. 

Note that you can only go on furlough when you return from family-related leave after 10 June if your employer has already furloughed other staff members. You also must have been on your employer’s payroll on or before 19 March 2020.

Your furlough pay should not be based on the pay you were receiving while you were on family-related leave, if this is lower than your usual pay. Your furlough pay should be calculated based on the higher of:

  • Your ‘usual pay’ (what you would have been earning had you not been on family-related leave), or if your salary varies:
  • the same month’s earnings from the previous year (depending on when your employer applies to the furlough scheme for you), or
  • average monthly earnings from the 2019-2020 tax year.

See our webpage on furlough and the government guidance for more information. 

I am currently on maternity (or adoption or shared parental leave) but all my colleagues have been furloughed. Can I cut my absence short to receive furlough pay instead of maternity (or adoption or shared parental) pay? 

Yes, you should be able to cut your leave short to go on furlough instead. You will need to agree first with your employer that you will be put on furlough: you do not have a right to be put on furlough.

You normally have to give eight weeks’ notice to return early from maternity (or adoption or shared parental) leave. But an employee and employer can agree between themselves to give a shorter notice period or no notice period at all. However, if you are receiving Maternity Allowance, the government guidance says that you need to give at least 8 weeks’ notice, and that you will not be eligible for furlough pay until the end of that 8 weeks.

Employers can ask employees to return to work part-time while on furlough (flexible furlough), so you should bear this in mind if you cut your family-related leave short to go on furlough.

If you cut your maternity, adoption, shared parental leave short to go on furlough, you may therefore have to return to work earlier than planned. But if you still have some maternity (or adoption or shared parental) leave left at the end of the furlough leave, you could go back on Shared Parental Leave (SPL) if you are eligible. You can take SPL until your child is one year old (birth parents) or one year from the date the child was placed with you (for adoption). For more detail on how to take SPL, see our SPL pages.

Self-employed parents

I took time out of trading in 2018-19 in the first year after my child’s birth/date of adoption. How does this impact my eligibility for the SEISS?

To get support through the government’s self-employed income support scheme (SEISS), you usually have to have traded in the last tax year (2018-2019) and have submitted a self-assessment tax return for 2018-2019. But the government has made an exception for new parents.

If you have taken time out of trading in the 12 months after the birth of your child or date of adoption, you can chose not to use your self-assessment tax return for 2018-2019 as the basis for your eligibility for the SEISS. 

Instead, you can choose to use either:

  • your 2017-2018 self-assessment return, or
  • both your 2016-17 and 2017-18 self-assessment returns.

You will still have to meet the other criteria for the scheme. See our financial support page for more information on the SEISS.

The government is set to publish detailed guidance of the change for new parents at the beginning of July. We will update this page when the guidance is published.

Benefits

I’m pregnant and I’ve lost my job – what benefits can I claim?

If you are dismissed when you are pregnant, bear in mind that this could be unlawful, although this will depend on the overall situation. If your employer says they cannot afford to keep paying you because of coronavirus, you should ask them to put you on furlough. Please see our page on furlough for more information. In almost all circumstances, the latest you could have gone on furlough for the first time is 10 June – but there is an exception if you are returning from family-related leave (maternity, paternity, adoption, or shared parental leave).

If you were dismissed in or after the 15th week before your expected week of childbirth or after the week that you are matched with a child for adoption, this will have no impact on your eligibility for Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP), Paternity Pay (SPP), Shared Parental Pay (ShPP) or Adoption Pay (SAP).

If you were dismissed before the 15th week before your expected week of childbirth or the week that you are matched with a child for adoption, then unfortunately you will not be eligible for SMP, SPP, ShPP, or SAP.  However, if you were dismissed solely or mainly to avoid your employer having to make these payments, you may still be entitled to them, but it may take a while for you to get them as you’ll have to get a formal decision from either HMRC or an Employment Tribunal

If you are pregnant, you are likely to be eligible for Maternity Allowance (MA) instead. To be eligible, you need to have worked or been employed for at least 26 weeks in the 66 weeks before your baby is due and earned over £30 in 13 of those weeks. The work does not have to be continuous or for the same employer, and you can count self-employed and employed work.

If you are already claiming tax credits, your award for these may go up if your household income has decreased by more than £2,500 compared to the previous tax year. If you get Housing Benefit, make sure you tell the local authority (council) about any changes to your income. And you should tell any organisation that pays you benefits when your baby arrives. 

If you are not already claiming benefits, you may be able to claim Universal Credit instead.

Don’t forget to check other help you might be entitled to if you claim benefits, including the Sure Start Maternity Grant (Best Start Grant in Scotland) and/or Healthy Start (Best Start Foods in Scotland).

Where can I go for more help?


This advice applies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If you live in another part of the UK, the law may differ. Please call our helpline for more details.

If you have further questions and would like to contact our advice team please use our advice contact form below or call us.

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