Women are entitled to no more than eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave without fear of losing their jobs under the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act, even if their employers offer them more time off, the state's highest court ruled today.
If an employer reneges on a promise to give a woman more than eight weeks of maternity leave, the employee has legal options, including suing for breach of contract, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled. But the worker cannot rely on the 1972 maternity leave act.
"Once a female employee is absent from employment for more than eight weeks, she is no longer within the purview of the MMLA and, consequently, is not afforded the protections conferred by the statute,'' Justice Francis X. Spina wrote for the majority in a 4-3 ruling.
The state maternity leave act requires employers with six or more workers to provide up to eight weeks of maternity leave to full-time employees to give birth or to adopt a child. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 is the federal equivalent and provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and job protection. Today's ruling does not affect the federal law.
The ruling stemmed from a case that was a legal offshoot of a $1.3 million award to a housekeeper who was fired by the head of a telecommunications company after she took about 11 weeks of maternity leave. The telecommunications company, Global NAPs' Inc., subsequently sued its lawyers for alleged malpractice.
In an odd twist, today's ruling rejected arguments by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which is responsible for enforcing the maternity leave act. The commission filed a brief siding with Global NAPs former private lawyers, saying that drawing the line at eight weeks would enable unscrupulous employers to promise longer maternity leaves and then to fire employees after they returned.
That was the position of Justice Margot Botsford, who wrote a dissenting opinion skewering such a potential bait-and-switch tactic.
"An employer following such a course is using the statutory limitation as a shield to 'affect' -- that is, to ignore -- its own agreement to offer a longer leave and a job on return, a course of action plainly prohibited'' by the statute, she wrote.
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