Pregnant and Working During the Pandemic – “Unsafe & Unsupported”

Posted:12th January 2022

This is the damming conclusion reached by Maternity Action* in a recent report of a review of Health & Safety rules in the workplace. Noting that many women who have felt that lack of guidance from the Health & Safety Executive have resorted to making claims against their employers in the Employment Tribunal, the report makes 16 recommendations with a view to improving the safety of pregnant women and protecting their employment rights. In this blog we discuss the issues.

The Health risks to Pregnant Workers – “Unsafe”

The report notes that whilst pregnant women are not at increased risk of infection with COVID-19, contracting the virus during pregnancy exposes women and their babies to increased risk of serious illness and death. Nevertheless, vaccination take up amongst pregnant women is only around 15%. Whilst Employers are under a legal obligation to conduct a risk assessment for their pregnant employees and to suspend them on full pay if risks to their health cannot be reasonably avoided or suitable alternative work provided. The authors noted a greater tendency for employers to have sent pregnant employees’ home on statutory sick pay or even unpaid leave. A further issue was the omission of pregnant women in the ‘Furlough Scheme’ which did not cover the payment of wages during maternity suspensions and which did not explicitly confirm that pregnant women were eligible, even though they were. A further issue given prominence in the report is the conflicting advice issued by Government during the pandemic- initially advising pregnant women to ‘self-isolate’ as being ‘clinically vulnerable’ and subsequently to be stringent in following social distancing measures, and also in relation to the advice given on the risks and benefits of vaccination.

The Financial Hit to Pregnant Workers and the lack of awareness towards them – “Unsupported”

The Report notes that the refusal of furlough pay, the imposition of SSP as an alternative and the under ‘take up’ of paid suspension has hit many pregnant women in the pocket. It notes the lack of clarity from Government in its publication of the rules concerning the Furlough Scheme and encourages both ACAS and the Health & Safety Executive to review their own guidance to Employers of pregnant women during the pandemic, particularly in relation to carrying out risk assessments. Currently only ‘employees’ are entitled to the benefit of risk assessments and to paid suspension and the authors recommend an extension of this protection to ‘workers’ too, given that a significant proportion of pregnant women have worker status rather than employee status because they work through agencies, for example.

The Recommendations

Given the substantial health risks associated with COVID-19 the emphasis (6 of the recommendations), is on greater attention to the conducting of Risk Assessments for pregnant women. The report emphasizes that even pre-pandemic this was a widespread issue of concern. Importance is also placed on reducing the financial hit on pregnant women by changing the criteria for assessing Statutory Maternity Pay and Statutory Sick Pay, and increasing the flat rate of Statutory Maternity, Paternity and Shared Parental Pay. Finally given the volume of claims presented to the Employment Tribunals the Government has been encouraged to provide extra resources to reduce the backlog of claims the majority of which are based on allegations of unlawful discrimination. It is also proposed that Pregnant employees be given more than the usual 3 months to complain to an Employment Tribunal if they do feel that their Employer has let them down.

For advice on any of the issues discussed please contact Graham Shannon at [email protected] or call on 0191 500 6989.

*Maternity Action is the UK’s maternity rights Charity.