Pregnancy Leave in Massachusetts: Understanding the Maternity Act

The Massachusetts Maternity Leave (MMLA) experienced a set back with the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in Global NAPs v. Awiszus. I had the opportunity to provide my thoughts about the decision to WBZ’s Diane Stern.

As background, the MMLA, which is codified under M.G.L. c. 149, §105D, guarantees “eligible” employees 8 weeks of unpaid leave for: (1) giving birth, (2) adopting a child under the age of 18, or (3) adopting a child under the age of 23, if the child is mentally or physically disabled. To learn more about the MMLA’s eligibility requirements and for a summary of the key differences between the MMLA and the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), please visit our previous post, Medical Leave Eligibility and Handicap Status in the Workplace Explored.

In Stephens v. Global NAPs, Sandy Stephens worked for Global’s president as a housekeeper. In late 1999, she informed her supervisor of her pregnancy and that her last day of work before maternity leave would be July 14, 2000. Under the MMLA, Ms. Stephens was guaranteed 8 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Her employer, however, promised her an additional 3 weeks of unpaid leave if she required a Cesarean section, which she did. Unfortunately, when Ms. Stephens tried to return after 11 weeks, Global reneged on its promise and informed her that she no longer had a job. Ms. Stephens brought suit under the MMLA and a jury found against Global for compensatory damages in the amount of $1,366,165 and punitive damages in the amount of $1,000,000.

The question before the SJC was whether Ms. Stephens could properly state a claim under the MMLA. According to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), the Commonwealth’s chief civil rights agency charged with interpreting and enforcing the law in question, the answer is “yes.” In fact, the MCAD’s Maternity Leave Act Guidelines explicitly address this issue:

An employer may grant a longer maternity leave than required under the MMLA. If the employer does not intend for full MMLA rights to apply to the period beyond eight weeks, however, it must clearly so inform the employee in writing prior to the commencement of the leave.

Although the SJC has previously acknowledged that such guidelines “represent the MCAD’s interpretation … and are entitled to substantial deference,” it abandoned the MCAD’s interpretation of the MMLA. Specifically, despite the employer’s promise that Ms. Stephens could take an extra 3 weeks off, the SJC held that she “was not entitled to the protections afforded by the MMLA, given that she was absent from employment for more than eight weeks.” As the SJC noted, however, the employer’s broken promise may give rise to a claim “for breach of contract, breach of oral representations, detrimental reliance, or the like.” For reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, such claims may be more difficult for an employee to pursue.

In light of the Awiszus decision, employees are well-advised to understand their rights under the MMLA. As the SJC has made clear, relying solely on the word of an employer that promises more maternity leave than the MMLA contemplates may leave you unemployed.