The Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (MMLA) guarantees eligible employees 8 weeks of unpaid leave for giving birth, adopting a child under the age of 18, or adopting a child under the age of 23, if the child is mentally or physically disabled. The bounds of this legislation and maternity rights in general were recently challenged in the case of Global NAPs v. Awiszus.
In Awiszus, an employee-plaintiff became pregnant and informed her supervisor of her intention to utilize her guaranteed 8 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Her employer promised her an additional 3 weeks of unpaid leave if she required a Cesarean section. The employee required a Cesarean section and tried to return to work after taking 11 weeks of unpaid leave. The employer reneged on its promise and informed the employee that she no longer had a job. The employee sued and was awarded compensatory and punitive damages.
The decision was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) where they overturned the lower court’s decision. Specifically, the SJC held that the employee "was not entitled to the protections afforded by the MMLA, given that she was absent from employment for more than eight weeks." The SJC noted, however, that the employer's broken promise may give rise to a claim "for breach of contract."
In light of the Awiszus decision, employees need to be sure that they understand their rights under the MMLA. Employees should not assume that verbal commitments from employers that claim to extend their rights under MMLA actually give the employee any addition rights beyond those that would exist in an ordinary contract. The SJC has clearly stated that employees who rely solely on the word of an employer that promises more maternity leave than the MMLA guarantees can only seek a breach of contract remedy.
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