Pregnant employees concerned about job security if they request Covid protection, research finds

Charity says health and safety rules for pregnant staff in the workplace are ‘not fit for purpose’ and need to be overhauled

A third of pregnant workers said they were concerned about their job security if they requested support during the pandemic, research finds.

A survey of 402 women who were pregnant and working between March 2020 and September 2021, carried out by Maternity Action, found that 36 per cent of respondents said they felt worried about losing their job if they took time off or asked their employer to do more to protect them from Covid.

The poll revealed that more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of pregnant women said they were ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ worried about catching Covid because of their work.

Three in five (59 per cent) of respondents said they had raised concerns about their health and safety with their employer but of these, almost one in five (17 per cent) said their employer took no action to address their concerns.

A fifth of respondents (20 per cent) also said they took time off or even left their job because they were so concerned about catching Covid.

“The system that is supposed to protect them is not fit for purpose,” said Ros Bragg, director of Maternity Action, who added that the situation for pregnant women was “dire” and “only getting worse as the pandemic progresses”.

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“There is a vast gap between what the law says and actual employer practice, leaving women under huge pressure to work in unsafe conditions,” she said, arguing that many pregnant women are left with the choice of either taking their employer to a tribunal, or carrying on working in an unsafe environment.

Maternity Action noted that, in December 2021, pregnant women made up 20 per cent of critically ill Covid patients in hospital despite constituting less than 1 per cent of the population.

Dave Ward, a partner in the employment team at Blacks Solicitors, said he was not surprised by the findings of the poll.

“We anticipate that despite the various enhanced protections and rights that pregnant women have under the Equality Act 2010 and Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations 1999, they are still left vulnerable and potentially targets for detrimental treatment,” he said.

Ward added that while pregnant employees were “potential targets for detrimental treatment” because of the additional strain they can sometimes put on businesses, it was a difficult thing to prove and needed “strong evidence”.

He said that communication lines with pregnant employees during the pandemic “have not been good enough” and advised that employers need to ensure pregnant employees are reassured about their working environment. “Otherwise employers face losing high quality personnel and talent in an already challenging recruitment market,” he explained.

Ward also warned: “Taking no action whatsoever to reasonable and legitimate concerns would be a breach of an employer’s duty of care, their duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and would potentially give rise to a claim for detriment under Section 44 Employment Rights Act 1996.”

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, agreed that employers could lose out on valuable skills and experience if they fail to address pregnant employees’ concerns.

“HR needs to be addressing these concerns head on, ideally even getting ahead of them and resolving potential issues before they become a problem,” she said, suggesting they source expert advice on important health and safety measures and promoting that this has been done will reassure all employees.

She also said that an “open-door policy” where concerns can be raised will enable effective communication and make employees feel their views are listened to.

Charlotte Woodworth, gender equality director at Business in the Community, added that pregnancy discrimination was not a new phenomenon, but that the pandemic has worsened the problems many pregnant women face at work. 

When employers are taking active steps to address employee concerns, she reiterated that they need to focus on “laying out clearly what support is available and recognising that pregnant people may have specific needs when it comes to avoiding Covid-19.”

Maternity Action is calling for the government to overhaul health and safety rules for pregnant women in the workplace as well as funding for paid maternity suspensions to ensure that pregnant women aren’t under pressure to work in unsafe environments.