Employer told to pay £11,000 for creating a ‘maternity pause’ clause in relation to training costs

A former optician was unfairly dismissed and discriminated against after her employer tried to use a contractual ‘pause clause’ to reclaim training costs when she didn’t return to work following maternity leave.

Mrs Walworth joined Scrivens in 2009 as an optical adviser before becoming a trainee dispensing optician in 2010 and later a branch manager.

In August 2010, she signed a training costs agreement, which stated she must pay back her training fees if she left the company within three years of registering as a dispensing optician with the General Optical Council.

She completed her training in December 2014 and became a dispensing optician.

At the end of August 2015, Walworth informed Scrivens that she was pregnant and wished to take maternity leave the following April.

In mid-September, HR responded formally to the pregnancy notification and set out the formal next steps, also advising that the training agreement would need to be reviewed closer to her leaving date to take into account how it was affected by her maternity leave.

In January 2016 HR confirmed that as she had completed only 16 months of her three-year post-qualification period, they would “pause” the timescale of the training costs agreement due to her maternity leave.

In January 2017, Walworth contacted Scrivens to discuss her return to work.

Her daughter had health issues and she discussed whether she could extend her leave with holiday or a sabbatical but this was refused.

HR contacted Walworth in February to discuss her return and reminded her that should she not return she would be liable for an £11,000 training cost fee.

Walworth resigned on the13 March, advising her contract had been “fundamentally broken” as she had been unfairly treated due to her maternity and pregnancy.

Scrivens made a formal demand for repayment of £11,000 and withheld Walworth’s holiday pay for the final year of employment to offset the sum.

The tribunal found that in pausing employment for the purpose of repayment whilst on maternity was unfavourable treatment (because of) maternity leave, and thus unlawful discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or maternity.

The reality is that Walworth remained employed whilst on maternity leave and as such this should not have affected the timescale for the repayment clause.

In using the maternity leave as a justification to pause was discriminatory.