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Having a baby? Want to share time off work?

If someone becomes a parent, they usually know the basic rules about time off work: men get 2 weeks and women can have up to a year. There are, of course, other rights but they tend to be less well-known. Now that’s all changed.

Shared Parental Leave is a new right that lets mothers, fathers, partners and adopters to choose how to share time off work and it came into effect on 1st December.

It’s designed to give parents more flexibility in how to share the care of their child in the first year. Parents will be able to share a pot of leave, and can decide to be off work at the same time and/or taking it in turns to have periods of leave to look after the child.

The new regime will operate alongside other forms of statutory family leave to which employees are already entitled, including maternity leave (52 weeks), adoption leave (also 52 weeks), ordinary paternity leave (2 weeks) and ‘ordinary’ unpaid parental leave (18 weeks). Additional Paternity Leave will be scrapped.

Ultimately it will be for the mother to decide to continue on maternity leave or opt to take Shared Parental Leave with her partner. To qualify, people need to have been employed for 26 weeks (6 months).

Employers could start to receive notice of eligibility and the intention to take Shared Parental Leave from qualifying employees in January 2015 from parents with babies due on or after 5 April 2015.

There are notice periods built in so that employers can plan, as well as qualifying criteria for both parents based on continuity of employment and pay. Leave does not have to be taken in one continuous block; employees can return to work and then take a further period of shared parental leave.

Employers will not be able to refuse leave, but they will be able to refuse requests to break this up into separate blocks of leave. For example, if someone asks for 2 6-week periods of leave, an employer can insist that it is taken as a single 12-week block.

An employee returning from leave is entitled to return to the same job, or a similar job, if they have taken 26 weeks or less.  If the period of leave exceeds this they are entitled to return to an alternative role.

Many employers pay enhanced maternity pay – more generous than the statutory minimum.  It is worth noting that there is no statutory requirement to match enhanced maternity pay with Shared Parental leave pay. This means pay for 39 of the 52 weeks based on the salary of the parent who is on leave. For the first six weeks the person on leave will receive 90% of his or her average weekly earnings before tax, after that it will be 90% or £136.78 – whichever is lower – for 33 weeks.

The introduction of Shared Parental Leave is designed to encourage the greater participation of fathers in caring for their children and reduce the penalties for women in lost earnings and career prospects as a result of taking long periods away from the workplace.

However it remains to be seen what the level of take-up will be, given the likely drop in pay.  It’s anticipated that the majority of requests will come from parents where the mother is already the higher earner or in an established career.

For employers, it’s likely to be a confusing time. You need to make sure your relevant policies (anything to do with maternity, paternity and adoption) are updated.

As always with employment law changes, we’ll have to see how things change when they come into effect. We’ll provide updates as they do.

By Melissa