In an August 8 decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in Massachusetts, issued a 4-3 decision holding that under the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act, (MMLA,) employers are only required to give 8-weeks of maternity leave, after which they must return the employee to the same or substantially similar position. The state law only applies to employers who employ less than 50 employees. Larger employers, those employing 50 or more, are governed by the Family Medical Leave Act, a federal statute.
Writing for the majority, Justice Francis X. Spina held that the statutory language, which provided leave to new mothers “for a period not exceeding 8-weeks for the purpose of giving birth,” meant that the MMLA only afforded protection for a maximum of 8-weeks, and employers were not obligated to give more. If an employee took longer than 8-weeks leave, the employer is able to terminate her, or in the alternative, does not have to return her to her former or a similar position.
What does this mean for Massachusetts employers? Employers who have previously promised would-be mothers a longer maternity leave period are still bound to offer the previously agreed upon maternity term under the principles of contract law, otherwise they only must offer 8-weeks of leave. The MMLA’s 8-week period is a floor, not a ceiling. Larger employers, of course, are still bound by the stricter federal law.