In the UK, maternity leave is 52 weeks. A year off after having a baby, the first 39 weeks of which are paid for by your employer. In addition, the mother is entitled to 13 weeks unpaid leave until the child is five. That is of course incredibly fantastic for the mother and child, and a very good incentive for large companies who want to encourage valued female staff to return to work after, but a minefield for small companies like mine.
In theory, if I employed a woman who became pregnant, and she decided to take the full year off, I would be able to afford to pay the maternity leave because that is budgeted for in her salary, but probably wouldn’t be able to afford to replace her for that time. Why? Because short-term contracts in skilled roles command a much higher rate than permanent salaries. You swap job security and longevity for a greater short-term return. I’d be paying the new mother’s maternity leave for 39 weeks (I’d get that back from the government, and in some cases some compensation, but I’d still make a loss), and probably double that for 52 weeks for an equally experienced and skilled temp, plus my recruitment and HR costs on top. I could pay more than the minimum statutory maternity leave, but that wouldn’t be paid back by the government. But of course, in recruitment terms, I am more likely to attract decent candidates if I offer a generous maternity package.
If I hired someone unskilled at a lower rate for a 12-month contract, I couldn’t afford to take the time out to train them up to standard, and couldn’t afford the risk if they turned out to be no good. Equally, I couldn’t afford to be without someone in that role for a year. So what do I do? There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that many small companies in my position simply avoid employing women of child-bearing age. I am not a jerk, and wouldn’t discriminate that way, but I do have to protect my business over and above the “nice-to-have” ideal of supporting a member of staff after she has a baby. It hasn’t happened yet, partly because I don’t employ any permanent full-time staff (my staff are all freelancers), but as my company grows and I become closer to bringing in permanent staff, I am aware that the impact on my business would be greater than the benefit of supporting the employee through the first year of her child’s life. This is a dilemma. I would not legally be allowed to make that employee redundant, unless I could prove it was for reasons other than the pregnancy. Neither would I want to – if I employ someone I’d like it to be for a long time, through whatever lifestyle choices that person makes. Such working relationships are invaluable, and I’m not a jerk. But having a member of staff away for a year could be crippling in many ways, and I am not the only small-business owner to express concerns. I’ve yet to find a solution to this I’m comfortable with. While very generous maternity rights help women work whilst having families, they also encourage small employers to discriminate based on risk. Such discrimination is wrong and illegal, but I can see why it happens. If the individual employer was free to offer a maternity package based on its own factors, then the market would decide. If it was a crappy package, the company would fail to attract certain candidates. But if the basic salary was higher as a reflection, then they might attract, for example, women like me who don’t plan to have children. I’d happily give up rights I don’t intend to use in return for a greater remuneration. I still can’t decide if that would be worse than the status quo, though.
Are maternity leave rights too generous, not generous enough, or should they be up to the individual employer?
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