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I am six months into my maternity leave and the company I work for have relocated to over 20 miles away and are now having a restructure. They have sent me a letter stating that I must apply for 1 of 2 posts within 5 days ready for an interview 2 days later. Is it reasonable for them to ask me to find childcare and leave my baby to travel 20 miles to an interview? Also do I have to spend my time applying and attending an interview whilst on maternity leave? I work as part of a job share, which they hate, and can’t help but think they’re trying to get rid of me.
You are protected under the new Equality Act which came into force in the UK in October this year. This Act extends protection to people who are seen to have a ‘protected characteristic’ and being on maternity leave is one of these. Your employer must not treat you in a less favourable way as a result of your protected characteristic.
You are entitled to 26 weeks of ordinary maternity leave and 26 weeks of additional maternity leave. As you are 6 months into your maternity leave your position will be guided by the rules of additional maternity leave which means that you are entitled to return to the same or similar job if yours no longer exists. Since this appears to be the case here, as you position appears to be redundant or at least at risk, your employer does not have to create a job for you, but at least has to consider you in priority to others at risk in relation to suitable alternative positions.
As your employer has offered you an interview for a new position within the company, it seems to be taking reasonable steps to secure you an alternative position. However, it is not clear whether this position is in fact suitable. It does appear unreasonable to expect you to find childcare and travel a long distance to attend an interview at such short notice without being given any alternative. While your employer cannot compel you to attend an interview to secure this new job, it may be beneficial to contact your employer and explain your concerns. It may be possible for them to arrange an interview at a time more convenient to yourself. You could enquire as to whether a telephone interview would be a possibility as this would resolve any childcare and travel issues. If, even after expressing your concerns, the company makes no attempt to offer you alternative interview arrangement and/or offer the position to another in the meantime, you may have grounds for complaint.
You should record all details of what has happened to your company (relocation, restructure) and make copies of the letter you have been sent. If you have made no progress with your concerns, your first step should be to make an informal complaint to your line manager. If you have no success with this approach and your employer simply refuses to arrange a more convenient interview time you can take out a grievance which is a formal written complaint to your employer. If there is no formal procedure within your company to do so you can use the ACAS grievance procedure (www.acas.org). Your final route for reprieval is to make a claim for maternity or sex discrimination to an employment tribunal. This must be done no later than three months after the last act of discrimination took place. In this case, three months after you received the letter calling you to interview.
If your company relocated during your statutory maternity leave this could be seen as a change to the terms and conditions of your employment if there is no mobility clause in your contract. In any event, it may be a redundancy situation. You had a right to be informed about this. Your first steps could be to enquire as to whether your fellow employees were consulted to the move taking place. If they were kept well informed where you were not, you may have further grounds for complaint. However, you have clearly been given some information about the restructure, as you are aware of it, but I am not certain whether this is as a result of rumour or proper letters being sent by your employer.
As mentioned, your employer is within their rights to make you redundant where there is no job to which you can return or no suitable alternative job to offer you. However, if you do not attend the scheduled interview (since this is the only option given) and your employer subsequently decides to make you redundant you may have grounds for unfair dismissal coupled with a discrimination claim. You will need to establish that the real reason for dismissal is not redundancy i.e. it was in fact because you were on maternity leave. You would also need to demonstrate that your employer did not follow proper procedure in making you redundant.
Hopefully, your employer will take quick steps to secure you an interview that is more convenient and accessible than the current proposition. If not, I would favour taking an informal approach first. If that does not succeed, before contemplating proceedings, it might be worth trying to negotiate a favourable settlement if you are going to be having to leave in any event, this could then tide you over until you find suitable employment elsewhere.