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The How, What, When, Who of sorting out maternity cover

Maternity leave

Article posted by Sara Burton on Jul 06, 2017

No matter how long an employee has been in a job, they're entitled to shared parental leave following the birth of their child. Statistics show that August and September are the peak times for babies being born, so the clock is probably ticking down for you to provide cover for a mother or father-to-be. Whilst we recognise that fathers are entitled to paid leave too, it’s more common for the mother to take the bulk of the leave. So, for the purposes of this article, we’ll work with the assumption that it is the expectant mother who is taking time off. There’s a lot of information you need to know but once you’ve come to grips with it, maternity leave shouldn’t be a problem – it’s all about planning ahead.

When does Maternity Leave occur?

First of all, you need to be familiar with your organisation's parental leave policy and also the protection in law offered to the expectant mother. More information on the legislation and how to implement it can be found here - it's advisable to also have a calendar handy and know your biology (in the UK, pregnancies are considered to last 40 weeks) so you can work out these key dates!

Here’s a timeline on the Statutory Maternity Leave:

  • 15 weeks before the predicted birth of the child (that’s around 5 months into the pregnancy) the expectant mother must confirm the expected due date and inform you of when they want their maternity leave to start. The soonest this date can be is 11 weeks before the due date.

  • The start and end dates of this leave must be confirmed by you in writing.

  • However, the leave date can be altered by the mother with 28 days’ notice and their return to work date can be altered by providing 8 weeks’ notice. This 28 day notice period effectively gives you two months to sort out any necessary cover for the adjusted dates.

  • From the start date of the Statutory Maternity Leave, the mother is entitled to up to 52 weeks leave from work. They are entitled to re-enter into their specific role after 26 weeks. However, if they take longer than this, they are entitled to re-enter into this role or a similar position.

Official requirements aside, here are some useful tips to bear in mind when dealing with a colleague with entitled maternity leave:

Your colleague may have spoken with you informally about her plans and is keen to make arrangements for maternity cover whilst she is off for her own peace of mind. This needs to be handled sensitively and professionally. On the one hand, you want to provide reassurance that the work will be dealt with in her absence, but on the other hand, you don't want to appear to be replacing her for good!

Generally speaking, the trend for mothers is to save as much of maternity leave as possible until after the baby is born and therefore start their maternity leave as late as they can. Many also couple this with taking holiday before their maternity leave starts. It’s important to account for this and leave an ample amount of time to conduct a suitable handover period, depending on their role within the company.

What does Statutory Maternity Leave (SMP) entitle?

Mothers are entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) for up to 39 weeks of their 52 weeks leave: 90% of their average weekly earnings (before tax) for the first 6 weeks and £148.68 or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks.

However, they are only entitled to any of this if they are:

  • On your payroll in the ‘qualifying week’ - the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth

  • Have worked for you continuously for at least 26 weeks up to any day in the qualifying week

  • Earn at least £113 a week (gross) in an 8-week ‘relevant period’

Who will you use as a replacement?

So, what sort of maternity cover are you going to provide? This, of course, depends on the nature and level of the role which they are currently fulfilling. It might be possible to redistribute her current workload among colleagues without the need for an additional hire. But if she is off for 6-9 months, or even up to a year, that’s a long time to expect people to shoulder additional workload comfortably and maintain quality.

For client facing and/or senior level posts it may be more appropriate to have a current employee ‘be the face’ of the role during the maternity cover and then resource an additional interim hire to undertake the legwork of the role for the maternity period. This approach has the advantage of the direct replacement being more informed about the company, role, clients and responsibilities. However, this might pose a problem when the mother returns to work. Will that internal cover is happy to revert to their old role and (possibly) their old salary? This is important to consider when considering the right person for the role.

Another option is to look for external assistance in the form of an interim. Once, you've decided you’re undertaking this option, you need to know the appropriate contact. Your immediate network is a good place to start. This might include former employees and colleagues you had from previous workplaces. Interim working has become more commonplace nowadays and networking tools such as LinkedIn make it even easier to find suitable candidates. However, you're still needing a lot of factors to come together at once – availability, skill set, team fit and salary expectations, so leaving enough time crucial (about 6 months before the due date is about right).

Advertising directly is also a good way to fill this role – your HR recruiting team can advise on this, but online job boards will take one-off job adverts nowadays. These job boards may also have relevant CV talent pools you can access for an additional fee. It is best to be clear with what you are advertising; a maternity leave position needs to be advertised with the expected time period and should not be confused with being a permanent role. If you don't have an HR or recruiting team to support you, however, don't underestimate the amount of your time it will take to run advertisements or search job boards to generate your shortlist of suitable candidates. The more prepared you are to undertake this task, the better chances you have of finding a good interim replacement.

The final, and arguably most popular solution, is to approach recruitment agencies. They will often have a dedicated interim team who know their market intimately and regularly place candidates for maternity and other time-limited roles. They will have a selection of candidates that are fully vetted and available for interim contracts. So, contacting a sector recruitment specialist will give you a good idea if there is likely to be a candidate available for your interim assignment, and if not, an alternative will be presented to you. This will also save an enormous amount of time at the beginning of the process as they will be able to present you with a shortlist of candidates to interview, without the need or cost for you to advertise. Most agencies work on a contingency basis for Interim assignments, so you would only pay a fee on successful placement.

How do you contract a replacement?

The most straightforward way is to offer a fixed term contract (FTC), which is essentially the same as a permanent contract, just limited by a time which is stated in the contract. To guard against things not working out as you had envisioned, be sure that your notice clauses are as robust as possible. This will enable you to end the contract early and remove any liability to pay until the end of the original terms of the agreement.

If you have secured the candidate through an agency, there will be a single fee which is payable to the agency at the outset for the time period. This will usually be based on a pro-rata of the equivalent permanent fee. However, if the contract is less than one year, but then extended, it is usual for a further fee to be charged on the extension.

Recruiting a candidate in this way is convenient but it does add to the headcount. If your headcount is already at its cap, the recruiting agency can set the candidate up on their payroll, and run the assignment through a weekly timesheet system. This means that you will get weekly or monthly invoices from the agency which covers the pay to the candidate, any holiday pay entitlement, employer's national insurance, the apprenticeship levy and pension costs, as well as the agency's fee. Whilst it is the agency paying the candidate, you are still obliged to treat them as an employee under AWR rules.

Following Agency Worker Regulations (AWR) legislation of 2011 you will need to offer temporary employees the same rights as permanent ones after 12 weeks in the role, which includes holiday allowance (including Bank Holidays), sick pay, car allowance, bonus schemes etc. They should also have the same right to access facilities, such as a canteen, car parking, corporate away days and so on. An interim should be regarded as a permanent employee of your organisation and should be treated with this in mind. When recruited this way, your interim will undoubtedly work harder to fulfil the responsibilities of their role.

Alternatively, there are some candidates who work on a "professional" interim basis and have set up a limited company in order to undertake this kind of work. These candidates tend to fulfil more senior roles in which they have worked on an interim basis for many years. Individuals who work in this way will probably opt to "contract" their services with you or an agency and want to avoid an "employment-based” scheme. In this instance, they would invoice the agency (or you) weekly or monthly for their services. If recruited through an agency, then the invoices would include the agency recruiting fee as well. The agreed rate of this contracted work will be an all-inclusive rate, so there are no further holiday pay, apprenticeship levy, national insurance or pension costs to consider. Usually, AWR does not apply in these circumstances as it would undermine their limited company status. So, in the eyes of employment law, they are considering an external party rather than an internal party that is entitled to the benefits of your permanent employees.

It’s also important to remember that hourly or daily rate candidates (whether PAYE or limited company) are on a week's notice. You may want to extend this to a month for your own security, as they have no obligation to stay for the whole maternity cover. If you want even further reassurance, perhaps consider a "completion bonus" to be paid at the end of the assignment, but forfeited if the interim leaves early.

Whichever way you recruit your interim, don't forget that they are subject to a notice period during the assignment, and be sure to give them due notice as the mother returns to work. Remember, she should give you at least 8 weeks’ notice of her return, and you'll probably want to allow 2-4 weeks of a hand back period, so these timescales should be very workable.

A final note

Getting your approach to maternity cover right will give everyone you work with the reassurance that any disruption will be kept to a minimum. Understanding the timeframes which apply, the different methods of running a contract and the types of individual available in your market, are all crucial. Hitting these key points right will ensure a smooth maternity period for you and the new mother, leaving her to focus on the most important part of all this – the new baby!

Which reminds us, there is one final task which might fall in your lap – organising a gift for the new-born. There are so many baby gifts on the market that you could be spoilt for choice, but one we particularly like is The Baby Box Company.

We’re here if you need help defining a role or brief, specialist insight to help shape your ideas or expert help with your recruitment process. Just get in touch to arrange a conversation with one of the team or if you’re ready for us to find the perfect person for you, send us your brief.

The tips provided in this article do not constitute formal HR or legal advice and you should speak with an HR professional if you have further questions or are in doubt.

This post was originally published in July 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness since.