02 January 2022
Terrified, vulnerable, and forgotten: pregnant workers in the pandemic
Pregnant workers are at high risk from Covid, so why were pregnant workers ignored in the UK's Covid response?
Essays on Equality – Covid-19 edition: Global and intersectional perspectives
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Ros Bragg is the Director of Maternity Action
Working for Maternity Action, a UK charity advising on maternity rights, the impact of the pandemic on pregnant workers was immediately apparent. Our legal team reported call after call from distressed women terrified about unsafe working conditions and deeply worried about their financial situation. While the UK government made several interventions to assist workers affected by the pandemic, pregnant women were poorly served. Many of these problems are documented in our report Insecure Labour.
Pregnant women are at high risk of serious or fatal illness if they contract Covid, with minority ethnic women at greatest risk. Coronavirus in pregnancy also increases the risk of pre-term birth. Despite this, the protections for pregnant workers in the UK have been weak, leaving many exposed to unsafe working conditions and others forced to cobble together various forms of leave, often with considerable loss of income.
Early in the pandemic, the British Prime Minister announced that pregnant women were especially vulnerable to Covid and should self-isolate. Public health regulations published at this time formally classed pregnant women as a “vulnerable group”, however this declaration was not supported by guidance for employers on how to treat the women affected. As a result, employers were left to determine their own response. Many pregnant women were sent home on unpaid leave or sick pay in breach of health and safety law. Others commenced maternity leave early, truncating time at home with their new baby. Yet others were expected to continue working in public-facing roles with no additional protections and were left to choose between these unsafe working conditions or resigning.
This resulted in thousands of women suffering a sudden and unexpected drop in their earnings, with those in casual or zero hours contracts particularly affected. In addition, many found that their earnings were so low during the crucial eight-week period used to calculate their entitlement to statutory maternity pay that they no longer qualified for these benefits or would receive much-reduced entitlements.
Despite vigorous lobbying by Maternity Action and backing from the House of Commons Petitions Committee, the government refused the minor changes to regulations that would have protected statutory maternity pay entitlements. Instead, they recommended these women pursue a legal claim against their employer, which few were able to do.
While health professional groups provided guidance for pregnant women on clinical issues, guidance for employers on managing pregnant women was sadly lacking. The government was asked to address this in multiple parliamentary questions, however, it was not until December 2020, nine months after declaring pregnant women as a vulnerable group, that this guidance was released.
Two job support programmes were established by the UK government to provide income for those in work who had been affected by the pandemic: the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) for employees and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) for self-employed people. Neither scheme mentioned pregnant women in their guidance. It was only after persistent lobbying by Maternity Action and others that the CJRS extended the programme to women returning from maternity leave and calculated payments on regular income rather than maternity pay.
The lack of reference to pregnant women in the CJRS guidance was understood by many employers as a deliberate exclusion. As the CJRS was at the discretion of the employer, many women missed out on this critically important income stream. The SEISS calculated payments based on three years’ income, without adjustment for time off for a new baby. Self-employed mothers who taken the equivalent of maternity leave received 33 per cent less in support as a result.
The CJRS and SEISS were new schemes, created at speed to address the complex and changing circumstances of the pandemic, so the guidance was updated as needed in this period. At some points, the guidance was updated weekly, taking on board the varying requirements of different industries, types of employers and forms of employment. It is notable that in these repeated revisions to the guidance, the changes needed to support pregnant women were addressed only in part.
The difficulties experienced by pregnant women in the pandemic build on an already challenging workplace environment. Research undertaken by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2016 found high rates of pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work, with three-quarters of women experiencing some form of discrimination or negative treatment during pregnancy, maternity leave or shortly after return to work. Roughly half of all women experienced some problem with health and safety, and four per cent left their jobs due to unsafe working conditions. One in every nine women was unfairly dismissed, unfairly made redundant or forced to leave their job.
In the context of high levels of maternity discrimination, women are rightly fearful that claiming their rights will put their jobs at risk. While unfair dismissal and selection for redundancy are unlawful, these are time-consuming and expensive to challenge in the employment tribunal and outcomes are uncertain. Legislation to strengthen redundancy protections for pregnant women and new mothers was promised in 2017 but is not yet in place, despite calls by parliamentarians and others for swift action.
Women in insecure contracts face an additional degree of difficulty. Short term and zero-hours contracts, casual and short-term contracts, agency and bank arrangements all leave women with significantly weaker maternity rights than regular employees. As many are at the mercy of their managers for allocation of shifts and renewal of contracts, they are in a much weaker negotiating position than regular employees. The UK Trades Union Congress estimates that one in nine people in the workforce were on insecure contracts when the pandemic began, and these figures are growing.
The impact of the pandemic on pregnant workers has been well-documented in a series of Parliamentary Select Committee reports and correspondence, ensuring that the evidence base has been presented to ministers alongside recommendations for change. It is clear that the specific needs of pregnant women and new mothers at work are a low priority for policymakers. Charities and unions have outlined a set of asks to address these problems. Failure to act will continue to expose pregnant women to significantly higher risk of serious illness and to leaving this group of women in a very vulnerable position in an uncertain job market.