Pregnancy discrimination to have to repay training fees

A former optician was unfairly dismissed and discriminated against after her employer tried to use a contractual ‘pause clause’ to reclaim training costs during her maternity leave, an Employment Tribunal has ruled.

The Employment Tribunal found that a chain of opticians was wrong to ask her to repay £11,000 in training fees incurred during her employment.

The employee joined the company  as an optical adviser before becoming a trainee dispensing optician in 2010 and later a branch manager. In August 2010, she signed a training and services agreement, which stated she must pay back her training costs 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, she informed her employer that she was pregnant and wished to go on maternity leave the following April.

The company issued a standard maternity letter confirming the formal next steps but added that she had completed only 16 months of her three-year post-qualification period. The business stated that her period of post-qualification employment for the purposes of training fees repayment would restart when she returned from maternity leave.

However, in January 2017, the employee contacted her manager to discuss her return to work, asking if she could extend her leave with a sabbatical due to her new baby having an illness. The company refused and reminded her of her agreed date of return and told her thaat if she resigned, she would be liable to repay £11,000 under the training agreement.

The tribunal found that the original agreement did not include a clause that would justify pausing employment for maternity or other long-term absence for the purposes of calculating whether repayment was due and stated that this was a “classic case” of unfavourable treatment because of maternity leave, and thus unlawful discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or maternity.

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