The Everest that is Maternity Allowance

  I enjoyed a day of pure self indulgence yesterday, with a solo trip to the cinema (always fun as you can watch absolutely anything you fancy, no need to compromise!) followed by sushi (not its real name I know) from my fave fast-food option in Leeds.
I went to see Everest in 3D at Everyman – the loveliest cinema experience available. With only five of us facing a large screen I had not only a two-person sofa and cushions to myself, but an entire row. I also had a cup of tea and stem ginger biscuit to help me through the adverts at the start – although I was slightly jel of the couple a few rows behind me who had a pizza and a bottle of red on the go (at an impressive 11.30am).

The film itself was entertaining, but a bit of a let down. It featured well-off rock climbing obsessives putting themselves in peril for the personal achievement of ‘summiting’ the mountain as part of a gigantic crowd of others. At one point a bearded Texan has a mini strop after a delay in crossing a ravine causes his cold hands to slip, leaving him dangling in a gloriously unheroic manner from a ladder placed over the gaping chasm. 

“I didn’t pay $65,000 to queue like I’m at Walmart”, he hisses to the tour guide. Later, the same Texan cracks jokes with a fellow-American, proclaiming “This is suffering!” in reference to the plummeting temperatures and thin air. But at $65k for the privilege, I would hardly call it suffering. More like self-inflicted self-indulgent elitism. This thought plagued me throughout the film and I couldn’t help but feel the expedition kind of had it coming due to the lack of awe of the elements displayed by the bearded bunch.

Anyway, I felt a bit guilty myself about the expense of this trip out, but not as bad as I might had I not had word about my Maternity Allowance application. It’s been a real trial and error process this time round in terms of trying to work out what I am entitled to. Last time was simple; I was a newspaper editor working full time on a fairly reasonable salary for a national company. I was eligible for Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) and HR sorted it out for me without any problem and sent me a ream of paperwork to explain what I would be getting. There were no company perks or bonuses (as any journalist reading this would expect of their employers) except for the 100% pay for the first month of leave wangled up from 90% by the local NUJ. But it was simple and easy to plan months ahead of my maternity leave.

This time I have been working ten hours a week as a university graduate teaching assistant (GTA) as well as doing a PhD – a position paid so poorly that I don’t pay tax or national insurance – therefore striking me ineligible for SMP. I went into this voluntarily, my eyes wide open and knowing I wanted another baby – it was the right chance at the right time. But as one of the first intake of GTAs, what I hadn’t anticipated was the amount of work finding out what I was eligible for. Because, it seems, nobody knew. 

I did some initial investigation, then I did some more forceful prodding after no response was forthcoming, then I did the making-a-pain-in-the-arse of myself. Slowly but surely we groped our way towards establishing what I was entitled to (in this case no SMP but I could still claim the university’s maternity scheme which sees pay paid in decreasing increments over a six month period – in my case as I am paid so little this will be peanuts, but peanuts are better than nothing!). I was also issued with a form by my employers which I could include with my application for Maternity Allowance (MA). This form was part of a much bigger pack which includes a complicated system of defining a set period over the past 15 months in which you can choose when you want your MA to be based on. Completion of the application included sending off PAYE slips* from a 15 week consecutive period, an SM1 form from my midwife and the form from work. It also included filling out a dense booklet – not the simplest process and one which would be easy to cock up. 

*If you can’t find your PAYE slips then you can request them from your employer. I contacted the payroll department from my former job and they posted me out a missing payslip that day.

Finally I photocopied it all and then sent off the originals. By this point I only had two weeks left at work and I was slightly sweaty not knowing how much, if anything, I would be paid. 

The wait took a fortnight. But it was worth it. Thanks to working full time in a well-paid role last year I am eligible for decent MA pay – such a relief! 

I feel like that battle was a bit like climbing my own Everest – and I am aware it has a similarly self indulgent quality to the film. I was the one who chose to leave my well-paid job for something much less remunerative. I could hardly complain if the bed I had made for myself was not as plush as the one I had left behind. But I am thankful that I can reflect on this from the comfort of knowing I will still be able to pay my bills and not have to rely as heavily on others. 

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