What to Expect When…
By John Gannon, Esq.
My wife and I recently welcomed our first child into the world. We are over the moon in love with our daughter and excited to see where this amazing journey will take us.
As an employment attorney, this process got me thinking about the topic of parental leave. That’s the legal term for providing job-protected time off from work to employees so they can bond with a newborn or newly adopted child.
Massachusetts state law requires almost all businesses to provide some job-protected leave for the birth or adoption of their child, and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) obligates employers with 50 or more employees to provide additional time off and protections to new parents. Although at first glance these laws may seem easy to administer, there are plenty of traps for those who do not have a deep understanding of how parental leave needs to be administered. Here are a few things employers should be aware of when an employee requests and takes parental leave.
What Does Your Policy Say?
Hopefully, you have a policy that addresses parental leave. If not, it’s time to get one on the books. Even if you have a policy, it’s never a bad idea to be make sure the language is up to date and consistent with state and federal laws governing time off to bond with a child. For example, the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act (MPLA) requires employers with six or more employees to provide eight weeks of unpaid leave to full-time employees for the purpose of giving birth or for the placement of a child for adoption.
If you have more than six employees, you need to have a policy and practice that addresses parental leave. Notably, up until a few years ago, this law was commonly referred to as the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Law, because the language of the statute provided leave protections for female employees only. The law was amended a few years ago to expand parental-leave protections to employees in Massachusetts of all genders.
If your policy refers to maternity leave instead of parental leave, it’s time to update your handbook as several employment laws have probably been added or changed since your last review.
Intersection of the FMLA
Employers covered by the FMLA have additional obligations that go beyond the requirements of state-mandated parental leave. For starters, under the FMLA, eligible employees are entitled to take up to 12 work weeks of FMLA leave in a 12-month period for a number of different reasons, including the birth of a child and to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child.
Both mothers and fathers have the right to take FMLA leave to bond with a child. Importantly, when an employee takes time under the FMLA to bond with a child, the eight weeks of state-mandated MPLA runs concurrently. This means that an employee with 12 weeks of available FMLA is entitled to 12 total weeks of parental leave, as the MPLA is used at the same time as the FMLA is used. However, questions arise when employees use FMLA for a reason unrelated to the birth or adoption of their child.
For instance, suppose an employee used 12 weeks of FMLA earlier this year to care for a sick parent. This month, the employee approaches you requesting leave to care for a child who is expected next month. That employee would no longer be entitled to 12 weeks of FMLA to care for the newborn, but would still be entitled to the eight weeks of MPLA under state law.
Leave Employees on Leave Alone
They call it leave from work for a reason. Employers need to resist the urge to contact employees on leave with work-related questions, especially if the leave is unpaid.
A call or two about something basic, such as the location of a file or document on the system, is probably fine. However, requesting attendance at meetings or on phone conferences will cross the line, as will the assignment of projects or other tasks. Not only are you taking parents away from a special and important time in their lives, but you are also potentially creating a situation where you are unlawfully interfering with an employee’s right to take time off under the FMLA or MPLA.
Plus, if the employee is taking unpaid parental leave, which is typically the case, you will need to be sure that the employee is compensated for any work performed during parental leave, including answering calls or responding to e-mails. This can be tough to account for, so the best practice is to let employees on parental leave enjoy their time off without work-related distractions.
I learned firsthand that parental leave was a special time for me and my newborn. Employers need to openly encourage employees to take all available parental leave, and should consider offering benefits that go beyond those required by state and federal law.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported in a policy brief on parental leave that longer leaves promote better child bonding, improve outcomes for children, and even increase gender equity at home and at the workplace.
A generous parental-leave policy is also a fantastic recruiting and retention tool, as it sends a message that the business values its workforce and is committed to bettering employee work-life balance.
John Gannon is a partner with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. He specializes in employment litigation and personnel policies and practices, wage-and-hour compliance, and non-compete and trade-secrets litigation; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]