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Can Employers Simply Change Maternity Pay Policies Without Prior Notice?

A recent decision from the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has cast some doubt on the ability of employers to simply amend workplace policies as and when they choose.

In the case of An Operations Manager v A Health Company (CA-00031550-001, 17 June 2020) the female Complainant stated that she was contractually entitled to maternity top-up pay of €250 weekly from her employer for 26 weeks during her maternity leave in 2018. However, when she returned to work following her maternity leave in May 2019 and advised her manager that she was pregnant again, she was informed that the company had changed its' policy. She was asked to sign a document stating that she would have to return all monies received should she terminate her employment with the company within 12 months of the end of her maternity leave.

The Complainant stated that this new company policy had been published in January 2019 when she was still on her first period of maternity leave. She subsequently found out that none of the staff were informed about the change in policy and that the company newsletter noting the change was only circulated in October 2019.

The Complainant asserted that her employer never informed her of any changes to the maternity leave policy with the new condition. The complainant states that she tried to resolve the issue internally within the company, but was informed that she was contractually responsible for informing herself of any changes to any of the company’s policies.

The Complainant stated that during her maternity leave, the company stopped her access to e-mails, computerised records and published policies, thereby leaving her with no possible way of informing herself of any changes to any policies.

The Complainant argued that there had been a breach of the Terms of Employment (Information) Act, 1994 (which requires that employers notify employees in writing of changes to terms and conditions of employment set out in prior written statements). She also submitted that the matter had caused her great distress and anxiety.

In response, the company stated that a new policy was published in January 2019. They accepted that there was some miscommunication in relation to informing the Complainant about the change in the required time-frame and apologised to her for the distress caused.

The WRC Adjudication Officer concluded that the 1994 Act requires employers to notify employees of any changes to the particulars of their terms of employment within 1 month of such changes taking effect. She noted that the company accepted that there was miscommunication in informing the Complainant of the policy change and concluded that the Respondent was in breach of the Act. She awarded compensation to the Complainant in the maximum amount permissible under the Act (€3,500 in this particular case).

It is unclear from the decision whether or not the employee's contract of employment specified that the maternity policy was of contractually-binding effect although it appears likely that it was. Leaving that issue aside, however, the determination is a clear warning to employers that changes to policies must be promptly and properly communicated to employees, including those who are on maternity leave.

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