Being a parent can lead to significant stress independent of job considerations, let alone the greater implications of the coronavirus pandemic. With job security at an all-time low, you may be wondering if your job will even be waiting for you when you return from parental leave. While these circumstances may be unprecedented, uncertain, and intimidating, you can take comfort in knowing that your rights as a parent remain the same as they were before COVID-19 upended the workplace.
Current Massachusetts state law guarantees employees at least eight weeks of parental leave to take care of a newborn or newly adopted child as long as the employee has worked full-time for their employer for at least three months and provides at least two weeks’ notice prior to taking leave. Whether or not a new parent will receive compensation during this time is based upon individual employers’ policies; paid leave is not guaranteed by law. Importantly, the Commonwealth’s parental leave policy applies equally to expectant mothers and their spouses, and to both adoptive parents.
On January 1, 2019, a bill was passed in Massachusetts further expanding leave opportunities for qualified workers. The provisions laid out in the new Paid Family Medical Leave (PFML) will go into effect on January 1, 2021. They include up to 26 weeks of paid leave for medical or family reasons, including caring for a newborn or newly adopted child. PFML is financed through a state tax of no more than 0.75% of wages paid by the employee and, sometimes, the employer.
Federal law also protects parental leave but only for employers with at least 50 employees. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees to take twelve weeks of unpaid—but job-protected—leave during a 12-month period to care for a new child. Employers must keep your position, or an equivalent position, open for you and maintain health insurance benefits while you are on leave.
The Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, a section of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act signed into law in December 2019, provides federal employees with up to 12 weeks of paid leave within a year of a child’s birth, adoption, or foster placement. This legislation goes into effect on October 1, 2020.
Remember that it is your legal right to claim parental leave. It is illegal for an employer to terminate an employee for requesting or taking parental leave. However, to ensure that your leave process goes smoothly, be sure to consult with your supervisor or Human Resources (HR) department—some companies may have a specific procedure to obtain approval. If you are terminated after requesting or taking parental leave, you may have a wrongful termination claim under Massachusetts law and should consult with an experienced employment attorney.
Returning to work in the age of COVID-19 after your leave concludes may look very different than it did before the pandemic. Many industries have been mandated to operate remotely, and even when such orders are lifted, it is likely that working from home will be a significant part of “the new normal.” While there may be some alterations to your job under coronavirus conditions, such as working from home, you are legally entitled to your “previous, or a similar, position” when you return from leave. This means that you are guaranteed the same status, salary, and credit for seniority. If you collect any accruing benefits from your employer, such as paid time off, you are also entitled to continue accruing those benefits at the same rate while out on leave.
If you are in the position of working from home following your parental leave, it is important to remember that your duties as a new parent are still a priority. Just because smartphone technology allows employees to be constantly reachable via phone, text, or email, that doesn’t mean employees must be constantly available. When work and home life are forced to overlap, challenges can easily arise with maintaining a balance between the two. Some companies offer specific return to work policies for new parents that allow for a gradual increase in working hours; consult with your employer to see if this is available to you.
In addition, the overall nature of the pandemic has added significant stress and anxiety to daily life, which stands to compound the normal struggles that new parents face. If possible, maintain an open dialogue over email with your supervisor or HR department about how you can best care for yourself, your new child, and the needs of your employer in the face of these challenges.
If you believe that you have been treated differently than your coworkers because you have taken leave or requested to take parental leave, please call us today.