Know Your Maternity Leave Rights
Going back to work after maternity leave is challenging, says Andrea Mara.
it's often compounded by a surge of sometimes conflicting emotions. Anxiety at leaving your baby in crèche, worries about how to juggle everything, and perhaps a little excitement too – anticipating all that adult conversation, and tea that, unlike at home, is not cold.
What is not so regularly discussed is the confidence dip that many women experience after maternity leave – the woman who worries that she has forgotten how to do her job; the mother who is afraid that playing peek-a-boo, cleaning up puréed carrot and conversing with a non-verbal pint-sized companion for nine months will have sucked her work-brain dry.
In the end, it’s usually not so bad – the confidence returns quite quickly. The baby didn’t really vaporise your work knowledge; same person, same brain, same job. No brainer, so to speak.
But what if it’s not the same job? What if upon returning to work, a woman is faced with a drop in salary or increased hours? That’s what happened recently to Lisa Mullen, a former financial controller who was told that her role no longer existed when she returned from maternity leave.
Her new role involved a 40 per cent pay cut and eight hours of additional work per week. A revised offer reinstated her pre-maternity-leave pay and conditions, but there was no restoration of her role or title. It was reported last week that the Equality Tribunal awarded €80,000 to Ms Mullen for this demotion on her return from maternity leave.
The case attracted much online discussion, with many commenters surprised that her employer had been unaware of the laws that protect women returning from maternity leave. And indeed, a 40 per cent pay reduction is a fairly obvious example of regulations being breached. But women can sometimes face less headline-grabbing amendments to their conditions – changes that are less clear-cut, but nevertheless unfavourable.
The baby didn’t really vaporise your work knowledge; same person, same brain, same job. No brainer, so to speak
Returning from maternity leave is a vulnerable time for many women – anxious perhaps about fitting back in, about getting out on time for the crèche run, about a sick child necessitating some unplanned time off. And there is therefore a risk that a minor demotion will be accepted – not happily or willingly – but in an “I’m not sure if this is OK or not but I don’t want to rock the boat” kind of way. Should you be concerned about this, it’s helpful to know the rules.
What are the maternity leave regulations?
The regulations (taken from IBEC’s Employment Law Guideline 9 document) state:
Return to work
There is a general entitlement for employees who have been on “protective leave” to return to work with the same employer (or a new employer if a change of ownership has taken place) in the same job under the same contract of employment (or an identical one in the case of a new employer).
If an employee had been in a different job than usual immediately before leave (e.g. in order to give her suitable work during pregnancy), she is entitled to return to her normal work (or as soon as is permitted by law where protective legislation is concerned).
Where it is not reasonably practicable for an employer to permit an employee following “protective leave” to return to work in the same job, suitable alternative work may be offered under a new contract of employment. Alternative work offered must be work of a kind that is suitable to the particular employee.
Offers of alternative employment must not be less favourable than those previously held. “Job” for the purposes of the Act is defined in terms of “the nature of the work which she is employed to do in accordance with her contract of employment and the capacity and place in which she is so employed”.
So, it’s very clear. While the employer is allowed to offer a different role, it must not be 'less favourable' – which certainly means a pay-cut or loss of title are not acceptable.
While the employer is allowed to offer a different role, it must not be 'less favourable' – which certainly means a pay-cut or loss of title are not acceptable
What can you do if this happens?
The first step is to speak to your manager – there may have been a misunderstanding. If this doesn’t lead to a satisfactory outcome, ask for the details in writing, and go to your HR manager if you have one, or to another manager. If you feel that you are being unfairly singled out it’s best to explore the internal grievance process and attempt to achieve a solution internally. In preparation, distinguish whether the demotion is unique to you, whether there are legitimate business reasons or changes taking place (for example, a restructure).
Evaluate properly what the new role on offer to you is – identify key differences between the pre- and post-maternity leave roles; in terms of resources, span of responsibilities, decision-making, etc. If there’s a genuine risk of redundancy, if your employer is asking staff universally to accept a temporary pay-cut or reduction in hours, you may need to consider accepting this or risk redundancy. But if you believe that there is no real risk of redundancy and that you are being demoted because of your maternity leave, and if you have taken the steps above to resolve the complaint internally, you should then take legal advice.
You can make a complaint to a Rights Commissioner or the Employment Appeals Tribunal within six months of the dispute arising – but you should absolutely take legal advice first as it can be difficult to win a case. For more details on taking a case, see www.citizensinformation.ie
If you believe that you are being demoted because of your maternity leave, you should take legal advice
This is all useful information to have, but happily, it will never be needed by the majority of employees. If you’re on maternity leave at the moment, there’s no need to worry – most employers know the regulations, and most have no intention of demoting mothers returning from maternity leave. In fact, they probably can’t wait for you to come back.
So enjoy every moment with your baby, and when the time comes to go back to work, look forward to the hot tea – they’ll have the kettle on for you.