Baby names, what cot to buy, organising your first scan – there are a million exciting things to think about when you find out you’re pregnant. What happens to your pay if you get sick shouldn’t be one of them.

In fact, it’s no stretch to say worrying about your finances in the early stages of pregnancy is the last thing you need. Thankfully, there are rules and guidelines around maternity leave that protect you from the worst of the stress, with statutory paid time off for mothers-to-be written into law.

But, to cover all bases, we’re here to explain what happens if you suffer from an illness while you’re expecting, including what the rules are around sick leave and sick pay during pregnancy.

Maternity leave and pay

First off – a quick refresher on maternity leave law. All pregnant women are entitled to up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, split into a couple of distinct sections.

Ordinary Maternity Leave, as it’s called, makes up the bulk of the paid time off. It’s a period of 26 weeks you can take off from work, with a little bit of flexibility about when it starts.

Typically, the earliest you can start Ordinary Maternity Leave is 11 weeks before your due date, but you can leave it later if you’d like to have more time with your baby when it’s born.

All mothers must take compulsory maternity leave for the first two weeks after birth (four weeks if you work in a factory) as part of this 26-week period. The mandatory two-week post-birth leave starts the day after your baby is born.

On top of Ordinary Maternity Leave, there’s an additional 26 weeks of Additional Maternity Leave that you can take if you want to.

In terms of pay, you’re entitled to 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay which is again split into two sections. For the first six weeks of your maternity leave, you’ll get 90% of your average pre-tax earnings. After that, you’ll get up to 33 weeks of pay set at the statutory rate of £151.20 (or 90% of your average pre-tax earnings, if that works out as less).

Remember, the rules around maternity pay and leave change when you bring Shared Parental Leave into the mix.

Sickness during maternity leave

So, that’s the basics out of the way. But how does sickness play into all of this? Well, there are two ways sickness can complicate your maternity leave allowance.

Sick pay during pregnancy affecting maternity pay

The first is that, since your statutory 90% maternity pay is calculated based on an eight week ‘qualifying period’, if you’re off sick and receiving statutory sick pay at any point during the period, your average earnings might be calculated as lower than usual.

To put this into context, say you usually earn £300 a week and work for the full eight-week qualifying period, you’ll earn £240 (90% of £300) for the first six weeks of your maternity leave.

If you’re off sick for two of those eight qualifying weeks and claim statutory sick leave (which is £95.85 per week) though, your average weekly earnings over the period drops to £248.96.

That means your first six weeks of statutory maternity pay would drop by £40.83 to £199.17 a week.

Sickness triggering an early maternity leave start date

The other potential issue is that you’d be forced to take your maternity leave earlier than you would have liked to if you get ill during your pregnancy. This would mean you’d get less maternity leave to spend time with your newborn, through no fault of your own.

What happens here is determined by whether your illness is related to your pregnancy or not. If it is, you’re entitled to statutory sick pay until four weeks before your baby is due, at which point your maternity leave will start automatically. If it’s not, you can take statutory sick pay up until the week your baby is due.

Managing sick leave during maternity leave

So, as an employer, where do you stand?

The law is clear on the statutory amount of maternity leave, when it can start from, and how much pay you’re entitled to. The main grey area is how you deal with sickness in the maternity leave qualifying period.

By law, you’re not obligated to do anything. If someone is sick in their qualifying period and has to take statutory sick pay that lowers their average weekly earnings, you’re not committing a crime by sticking to the words of the law and taking that average forward as their statutory maternity pay.

However, it’s worth considering what this actually means for them. From our viewpoint, it seems unfair to penalise an employee, especially someone who’s pregnant, based on them falling ill outside of their control.

Regardless of what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ though, you’re also risking encouraging them to come into work while sick in an effort to make sure they get their full level of statutory maternity pay.

What if their illness spreads in the office and takes more people out of action? It could prolong their recovery, meaning they go into childbirth – a process that’s already stressful enough – still feeling under the weather.

It’s not an issue that’ll ever arise at Timetastic. We offer full pay for at least the first four weeks of sickness, but we think a little bit of leeway is appropriate. We’d recommend allowing anyone who’s pregnant to take sick leave when it’s needed. If it’s during the qualifying period, we’d suggest making up the difference so they get their normal level of pay, at least for the first six weeks of their statutory maternity leave.