“More legal rights than a protected species panda bear” is how one senior HR advisor describes the attitude of business towards pregnant employees. Is the increase in statutory maternity, paternity and adoption pay in April this year from £106 to £108.85 per week a suitable provision for new parents or does it reflect a general disregard among government and companies for their services? Sarah Fletcher asked HR professionals how maternity issues affect their organisations.
Is the Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) rate enough?
Alison Rodwell, Senior HR Advisor at Hewitt Associates Outsourcing Ltd, argues that from an employer’s perspective the Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) rate is sufficient payment because such provision can prove expensive. However, this financial saving could create extra costs in other areas of the business.
Deciding not to provide an enhanced maternity package could damage a company’s ability to recruit and retain employees. According to Clare Shaw Cross, HR Manager of Loyalty Management UK Limited (LMUK), the firm that runs the Nectar points scheme used by businesses such as Sainsbury’s, the SMP rate is not “enough to keep our employees happy… The way in which an employer enhances their package would definitely affect my decision to join.”
Berengere Toscano, HR Manager of LANDesk Software, agrees: “We are a good performing software company and nevertheless we are offering only the minimum level and have no enhanced maternity leave. This is a shame as it could be a good selling point in an interview process to show that, as a company, we do care for our staff.”
As HR consultant of APC Management Alison Clark points out, SMP affects high earners more than their lower paid colleagues: “It is awful for those people earning more than the average salary,” she says.
Alison Whale, HR manager, Constar International
Is your organisation’s policy towards maternity leave fair?
Claire Legassick, HR specialist at Cargill PLC, argues employees should accept that those workers that need support should receive it: “If people choose not to have children, then they should expect that those who do will need help and support. You only receive these benefits when you need them (i.e. when you have a child) and people need to accept this will occur.”
Alison Whale, HR manager of Constar International, agrees: “I do get comments from those without children about the statutory time off, pay etc. My comment to those without children (and these are people who choose not to have children as a lifestyle choice) is that it is tough.”
Alison Rodwell, senior HR advisor at Hewitt Associates Outsourcing Ltd, argues employees that have not been pregnant are in no position to judge whether they receive preferential treatment: “This can seem unfair – women who are pregnant do appear to others as having ‘more legal rights than a protected species panda bear’ but until you are in their shoes I don’t think you can comment,” she says.
However, HR consultant Anne Yarker disagrees: “As a mother of a young child I appreciate the demands on working parents, but it is also hard on those left behind to pick up the pieces and keep the business running.” Significant concerns for the organisation include the restructuring required when an employee goes on maternity leave, in terms of recruiting someone to fill the role, and what benefits the new parent should continue to enjoy whilst they are absent from work. Issues of company cars, corporate mobile phones and qualifying for certain bonus schemes can make other employees feel sensitive towards the issue of fairness to both pregnant and childless staff.
What effect does statutory paternity pay have upon employees?
Yarker calls these rates “a joke”: “Most men are the main breadwinners – how can you support a family on that? It does not encourage men to take the leave they are entitled to.” Shaw Cross agrees: “We do exactly the same as maternity for paternity and adoption, but most men at the company think that two week’s paternity leave at the current levels is woefully inadequate and unsupportive of working fathers.”
Anne Yarker, HR consultant, Simon Jersey
Rodwell says men will bypass the opportunity for paternity pay and instead take the time off as holiday because of the low financial benefits: “The majority of men in my experience will not take the leave as paternity leave but as holiday as it means they don’t take a drop in their salaries – especially if their partners are then only on SMP or unpaid leave.”
Alex Jaggers, HR manager of Economatters Ltd, says the legislation encourages employees on low salaries to stay off work because they actually do better financially: “The cost of the childcare for the wee family addition is probably as much as the lower of the two salaries (excluding other tax breaks)… The legislation actively encourages the lower paid family member not to go back to work at all, simply because of the costs. Britain could hardly be called a child friendly environment.”
What changes would you like to see?
The most pressing for both business and employees is financial. Yarker says the government should provide “More support for business in meeting the salary costs of replacements” and Whale argues that as this will benefit everyone, we all should pay:
“The purpose of the time off, whether maternity, paternity, adoption or parental is to care for a child. We show little enough care in terms of legislation or support for non working parents, there is a constant stream of information about the harm that nursery inflicts on your child and a lack of flexibility to enable parents to manage child care, especially over the age of five.
“It’s not fair, but if you have benefits aimed at care and support for children it is surely about the benefit for future generations. If you don’t contribute to that I can see no reason for those people to have a right to any benefit.
“I would realistically like to see average weekly pay for maternity, paternity and adoption funded by the Government and not from the pockets of industry. I would like to see the period for time off set at up to two years; but I would also like to see more flexible arrangements for parents of children up to the age of 16 and not just age five.”
Annie Tarry, HR and administration manager of B-Plan Information Systems Ltd, adds that the UK’s negative attitude towards childbearing is the root of the pensions crisis: “In this country we do not value children as they do in other countries and that is why there are not enough younger workers to pay our pensions!”
Alex Jaggers, HR manager, Economatters Ltd
Toscano says maternity and paternity pay should be linked to the employee’s income: “Generally the statutory minimum is so low that you can’t count on it to cover your usual monthly expenses (mortgage, electricity and gas bills). This should be one of the biggest changes. The statutory minimum should be linked to your income in terms of percentage or should be at a level where it is more than symbolic. Also it should be paid for longer than 20 weeks and should cover a full year.”
Rodwell argues that children should not be a ticket to benefits such as the opportunity for flexible working: “Biggest change would be the right for all employees to request flexible working, not just those with children under six years. I think we would all like to be able to have a better work life balance in terms of chosen working hours and days, whether we have children or not. Just because you don’t have children, doesn’t mean you don’t have a life.”
The overwhelming response to this issue underlines the significant impact that maternity policies have upon not just new parents, but the workplace and UK business as a whole. Frequently an increase in SMP rates and greater flexibility for all staff is requested, yet our members are undecided whether such legislation should originate with government or industry. Is maternity a right or a concession?