Maternity Leave Laws: Legal Guidelines for Employers

When an employee announces she’s pregnant, her employer had better be aware of the federal pregnancy discrimination law, state maternity leave laws and the employee’s right to FMLA and pregnancy disability leave.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination against employees and applicants on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions.” Any employer that’s subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (i.e., has 15 or more employees) must comply with the PDA.

Under the law, you can’t deny a woman a job or a promotion merely because she’s pregnant or has had an abortion. Nor can you fire her because of her condition or force her to go on leave as long as she’s physically capable of performing her job.

In short, the law requires you to treat pregnant employees the same as other employees on the basis of their ability or inability to work. That means you must provide the same accommodations for an expectant worker that you do for any employees unable to perform their regular duties.

In addition, the PDA requires you to provide sick leave and disability benefits on the same basis or conditions that apply to other employees who are granted leave for a temporary disability. Women who take maternity leave must be reinstated under the same conditions as employees returning from disability leave.

At the same time, you’re allowed to apply the same requirements that you impose on other employees. So, if you usually require employees to obtain a doctor’s note before allowing them to take sick leave and collect benefits, you can impose the same rule on pregnant employees. Tip: Learn about other key PDA provisions in Maternity Leave Laws: 7 guidelines, a new special report from Business Management Daily.

FMLA Leave

When an employee becomes pregnant, her employer must also consider her right to take leave under the federal FMLA. Eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected FMLA leave for the birth, adoption or foster care of a child; caring for a child, spouse or parent with a serious health condition; or convalescence after an employee’s own serious health condition.

To qualify for FMLA leave, an employee must have worked for the same employer for at least 12 months (not necessarily continuously) and clocked at least 1,250 hours of service (slightly more than 24 hours per week) during the 12 months leading up to FMLA leave.

Any organization with 50 or more employees working within a 75-mile radius of the work site must comply with the FMLA.

Employees can also use their allowable FMLA leave if they suffer complications during pregnancy or prenatal care that constitute a “serious health condition.” (The FMLA defines a “serious health condition” as “an illness, injury, impairment or any physical or mental condition that requires inpatient medical care or continuing treatment by a health care provider.”)

Also, keep in mind that a normal pregnancy is not considered a disability under the ADA. The law defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” But if a woman experiences pregnancy complications that substantially limit a major life activity, she may be considered disabled under the ADA and, therefore, entitled to reasonable accommodation to perform her job.

All employers that have 15 or more employees must comply with the ADA.

State Maternity Leave Laws

Several states mandate more generous maternity and family leave than the FMLA (and some state laws apply to smaller employers). Here are a few examples:

•    Tennessee: Public and private employers that have eight or more workers must grant female employees 16 weeks’ leave for childbirth.
•    Rhode Island: Public employers of 30 or more employees and private employers with 50 or more employees are required to offer 13 weeks of leave in any two calendar years for the birth or adoption of a child or the serious illness of a child, spouse or parent.
•    California, Hawaii and New Jersey: Employees temporarily disabled for medical reasons, including pregnancy and childbirth, receive partial wage replacement in the form of temporary disability insurance benefits.

If you decide to adopt a formal maternity/paternity leave policy, make sure it complies with federal and state regulations. Since some state laws grant employees more generous leave and may apply to smaller employers than the FMLA, make sure your attorney reviews your policy before you disseminate it to employees.