When is a job not the same job? That was the question considered in Blundell v St Andrews Catholic Primary School, where for the first time the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) considered the criteria to be used when assessing what exactly amounts to the ‘same job’ under the Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations 1999.
In the regulations, a woman returning from ordinary maternity leave has the right to “return to the same job, in which she was employed before her absence”.
Mrs Blundell was a primary school teacher. The practice in her school was for teachers to teach a particular class every two years and then rotate – to give them a breadth of experience.
At the time of commencing maternity leave in January 2004, she was in her second year of teaching the class ‘reception yellow’. On her return to work, at the start of the following academic year, she was offered the choice of a floating role or teaching year two. She chose the latter. However, she claimed that this was a more stressful role, and not the same job that she had left prior to her maternity leave.
The EAT disagreed, and found her role to be that of a primary school teacher, and not specifically defined as a teacher of the reception yellow class.
An employer has to consider three things when deciding upon the ‘same job': the ‘nature’ of the job, as provided by the contract of employment the ‘capacity’ in which the employee is employed, which is a factual label to describe the employee’s function more than merely their status and the ‘place’ at which the employee works.
The issues of capacity and place are not dictated solely by the contract, but are to be decided by a tribunal on the particular facts. For example, where a mobility clause allowing for an alternative location exists in the contract of employment, this would not necessarily entitle an employer to move an employee on her return from maternity leave.
The EAT ruled that where there is variation to the role in practice, the employer is not obliged to “freeze time at the precise moment that maternity leave is taken, but may have regard to the normal range within which variation has previously occurred”. It concluded that teaching year two was not outside the normal range of variability that she could reasonably have expected, and was therefore the ‘same job’.
As her role was regularly rotated, the EAT found that the nature of her job was to teach at a primary school, her capacity was as a class teacher rather than a reception yellow teacher, and her place of work was at the school.
Although of little comfort to Blundell, the EAT was keen to stress the purpose of the regulations, which is to ensure that women who return from maternity leave experience as little disruption as reasonably possible at an already stressful time for them.
While the EAT was sympathetic to the intentions of the regulations, the positive message for employers is that in practice, as in this case, it is likely that a generic job description and less rigid working practices will go a long way in affording them the flexibility that they may require.
The guidelines set out by the EAT are useful. However, nothing can be taken for granted and, where there is uncertainty, each case will still rest on its own facts.
Stefan Green is a lawyer in the employment and benefits team at Allen & Overy