Employment Law Legislative Update: Pregnancy Protection and Paid Family Leave Agenda on Beacon Hill

Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation as an employee-friendly state when it comes to employers’ legal obligations and employees’ rights.  The Massachusetts legislature is considering several bills, which, if enacted, would continue this trend in significant ways.  The proposed legislation addresses two important topics: (1) workplace protections for pregnant workers and new mothers, and (2) paid family and medical leave.  The former seems likely to become law, while the latter has a more uncertain political future.  It is important for Massachusetts employers to monitor both developments.

The Massachusetts Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

In May 2017, the Massachusetts House unanimously passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA).  Upon its likely passage in the Senate, the PWFA will require employers to provide pregnant workers accommodations similar to the accommodations offered to disabled workers.  The law would also require employers to accommodate conditions related to pregnancy and new motherhood, such as the need to express breast milk for a nursing child.

The PWFA expands the existing accommodation requirements—which are generally limited to pregnancies that are disabling—to cover even those women experiencing healthy pregnancies.  The employer will be required to engage in an interactive process with the pregnant or nursing employee to establish reasonable accommodations to her normal workplace routine.  Accommodations could include modified work schedules, restrictions on heavy lifting and manual labor, or more frequent bathroom breaks.  An employer would not be permitted to require an employee to take a leave of absence as an accommodation if a reasonable alternative accommodation exists.

This legislation has now moved on to the Senate.  Its unanimous support in the House signifies the broad support this legislation enjoys on Beacon Hill.

Paid Family and Medical Leave 

More controversial is a bill ensuring paid family and medical leave in Massachusetts.  The legislation, entitled “An Act Establishing a Paid Family Leave and Medical Program,” passed the Senate in 2016 but died in the House last July.  It has returned to the legislative agenda in 2017, with two competing bills under consideration.

The proposed legislation would expand employee paid time off for certain qualifying events.  The family leave is expected to cover time off during the first 12 months of a child’s life or the first 12 months after the placement of the child in an adoptive or foster care home.  The leave may also cover time off due to a serious health condition of the employee or a family member or due to a qualifying exigency arising out of matters related to serving on active duty in the armed forces.  Under the most expansive version of the proposed legislation, a qualified employee would be eligible for a maximum of 26 weeks leave in a benefit year for the employee’s own health condition and up to 12 weeks leave in a benefit year for other protected reasons.  The dollar amount of weekly paid leave would be determined based upon a benefits schedule adopted by the Commonwealth, but would not exceed a set amount, with the current bills setting different limits, one at $650 per week and the other at $1,000 per week.  The legislation would create a new state-administered fund to pay for the benefits.  Employers would make contributions based on a worker’s salary, although they could require their employees to pay up to half the cost.

A hearing on Beacon Hill later this month will determine the future of this bill, which, if passed, would make Massachusetts one of only a handful of states to offer such a benefit.  A similar trend is playing out at the national level, where Congress is considering pregnancy fairness and paid family leave legislation that would extend protection for employees and create additional compliance issues for employers.

We will continue to monitor and report on these and other legislative developments affecting Massachusetts employers.  If you have any questions about the information presented here, or would like to learn more about how Prince Lobel can address any of your employment law concerns, please contact Richard D. Wayne, 617 456 8071 or rwayne@princelobel.com, or Daniel S. Tarlow, 617 456 8013 or dtarlow@princelobel.com, the authors of this alert.

About Prince Lobel: Prince Lobel Tye LLP is a Boston law firm whose 80-plus attorneys handle matters of local, regional, national, and international reach.  We offer high-quality advice and cost-effective solutions in practice areas and industries including Construction, Corporate, Data Privacy and Security, Domestic Relations, Employment, Environmental, Estate Planning, Insurance/Reinsurance, Intellectual Property, Litigation, Media and First Amendment, Nanotechnology, Real Estate, Renewable Energy, Social Media, and Telecommunications.