By Helena Milner-Smith, Kamakshi Venkataramanan and Jenna Wallace

Vodafone announced recently a new progressive and generous mandatory minimum global maternity policy.  According to the company, under the new policy, to be in effect by the end of this year, female employees of Vodafone in 30 countries will be offered two maternity benefits: (1) at least 16 weeks of maternity leave at full pay, and (2) the opportunity to work a 30-hour week at full pay for the first 6 months after they return to work from leave.

Hot Topic #1: Pregnancy and Maternity Benefits

Balancing work and life commitments for employees, including the demands of children and childbearing, is an increasingly sharp challenge for employers – both as an equality issue, and to meet the demands of the new generation of “millenials” (workers in their 20s and 30s) who are widely reported to prioritize work-life issues.

In the U.S., working condition issues for expectant and new parents have received attention from the media and employers, and from regulators and the courts.  As we discussed in a post last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued enforcement guidance explaining when an employer’s policies affecting pregnant employees might violate federal law.  The EEOC’s guidance states that employers must treat women affected by pregnancy or related medical conditions in the same way that they treat other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.  The guidance also requires that employer health plans and leave policies treat pregnancy like other medical conditions.  (For more details on the EEOC’s guidance, you can read the post here and our additional summary of the guidance here.)

Shortly after the Vodafone announcement, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Young v. UPS, reviewing the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that UPS did not discriminate against an employee on the basis of her pregnancy when it denied her accommodation for medical restrictions arising from her pregnancy but did provide light-duty assignment accommodations to employees with on-the-job injuries.  As a result of the Court’s decision, which vacated and remanded the case, a plaintiff can establish a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination if she shows that her employer accommodated other employees who are similarly situated, as well as meeting the other requirements for a prima facie case of discrimination.  The burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the differential treatment.  (For more details on the Supreme Court’s decision, you can read our post here.)

In Europe, robust maternity rights have been enshrined into European Union law since the early 1990s.  All E.U. member states must adhere to certain mandates on the protection of maternity and pregnancy in the work environment.  These include: enacting national legislation to ensure  that women may take at least 14 weeks of maternity leave (including a compulsory 2 week period after birth) and are protected from dismissal during pregnancy; and by adopting appropriate health and safety requirements for pregnant workers.  Since 2007, women in the European Union have also enjoyed the right to return to the same or an equivalent job after maternity leave.  More recently, a trend has emerged to move away from the gender stereotype that women should have principal responsibility for childcare.  For example, a new system of “shared parental leave” was introduced in the U.K. on 5 April 2015 that effectively allows parents to share up to 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave (39 of which are paid) that was formerly available only to mothers.  This model of shared parenting also exists in several other E.U. countries and is most closely identified with Scandinavia (Sweden was the first country to give parents equal leave rights and today either the father or mother of a child can take up to 18 months of leave).

Vodafone is positing their new policy as good for business, as well as good for employees and their families.  As a part of the press release, the company has shared a short film entitled “Maternomics” on its website. The film makes the point that many woman may leave a job they would otherwise prefer to keep because they do not have paid maternity leave or are worried about the cost of childcare.  It also estimates that the Vodacom policy of 16 weeks of paid leave and 6 months of full pay part-time work would cost $28 billion globally, but training employees to replace women who leave after having children could cost up to $47 billion.  (It further makes the touching point that this policy would give new babies 608 million additional days with their mothers.)

Hot Topic #2: Global Employee Policies

The Vodafone policy stands out not only for its generous and progressive allowance for working mothers but also for its global scope.  As we discussed in a Covington webinar on Global Employee Contracts and Policies, there can be significant advantages to a consistent global policy.  These policies can help foster and maintain a corporate culture and personality.  They offer a uniform style and approach, which can be simpler to administer and may lead to cost savings.

Globally policies also pose unique challenges for companies with employees in jurisdictions where local law requirements for mandatory benefits may vary greatly.  Pregnancy, maternity and other parental benefits are no exception. Vodafone has indicated in its announcement that its policy will set a global minimum; employees in certain jurisdictions may receive additional benefits.  Set forth below is a chart comparing legally mandated parental leave benefits in countries around the world.

Comparison of Certain Global Parental Leave Requirements

Country Required Leave Benefits
Canada Female employees are entitled to 17 or 18 weeks of unpaid leave, subject to service requirements based on the jurisdiction.  Female employees may take an additional 52 weeks of unpaid parental leave and male employees may take 53 weeks of unpaid parental leave, in each case subject to applicable service requirements.
China Female employees generally have 98 days of maternity leave, 15 of which may be used before birth.  Additional days of leave is granted in a number of scenarios, including: (1) difficult delivery, (2) multiple babies, (3) mothers older than 24, and (4) first time mothers.
Germany 6 weeks of maternity leave before birth and 8 weeks of maternity leave after birth.  Additional leave is granted in the case of multiple births or a premature birth.  Parental leave or reduced schedule (up to 30 hours a week) may be taken by a male or female employee if the employee lives with, cares for and educates the child.  Parental leave is generally unpaid, but a government benefit is available for up to 14 months of parental leave.
Mexico 6 weeks of paid maternity leave for female employees.  May be used before or after birth.  6 weeks of adoption leave for female employees.
Japan  14 weeks of maternity leave, 6 of which may be used before birth.  The employee is required to take 8 weeks of leave following the birth, subject to early return with a doctor’s permission.  Additional leave is given in the case of multiple births. With some exceptions, employees with a child under the age of 1 may request additional childcare leave.  An employee who has young children may take up to 5 days leave (10 days in the case of multiple children) to care for a sick or injured child.
South Korea 90 days of paid maternity leave, or 120 days for multiples, for female employees.  Leave may be used before or after birth.  Female and male employees with young children must have the opportunity to take one year leave of absence (in addition to paid maternity leave for female employees).
United States Employees who meet minimum service requirements are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act or similar benefits under state law.
United Kingdom Female employees are entitled to up to 52 weeks of leave.  The period of leave is paid, at 90% of normal weekly earnings for the first 6 weeks, and then at the lesser of 90% of normal weekly earnings and the statutory rate (currently £139.58).  New provisions came into force in April 2015 allowing parents to share the majority of this maternity leave.  18 weeks of statutory unpaid parental leave is also available for parents.

Author Note: Kamakshi Venkataramanan is a trainee solicitor in our London office and she graduated with an LLB (Honours) degree from the University of Warwick.