Yesterday, the Ohio Supreme Court handed businesses a huge victory on the issue of pregnancy leave rights.
Pataskala Oaks Care Center had a written policy that required all employees to work for a year before becoming eligible for leave for any reason. It fired Tiffany McFee three days after she gave birth because she was absent from employment before she had become eligible for leave under that policy. McFee sued for sex discrimination. The court of appeals held that Ohio’s antidiscrimination laws require that employers provide employees with a reasonable period of maternity leave, and the at-issue policy that denied McFee leave was direct evidence of sex discrimination.
In McFee v. Nursing Care Mgmt. of Am. (6/22/10) [pdf], the Ohio Supreme Court disagree, and held:
An employment policy that imposes a uniform minimum-length-of-service requirement for leave eligibility with no exception for maternity leave is not direct evidence of sex discrimination….
In reaching this decision, the Court pointed out that the pregnancy discrimination laws do not require preferential treatment for pregnant employees. They merely mandate that employers treat pregnant employees the same as non-pregnant employees who are similarly situated with respect to their ability to work. Because the at-issue length-of-service requirement is pregnancy-blind—it treats all employees the same by requiring every employee to 12 months of employment before becoming eligible for leave—it is not direct evidence of sex discrimination.
The court also harmonized Ohio’s pregnancy discrimination regulations on mandatory maternity leave—Ohio Adm. Code 4112-5-05(G)(2) and (G)(5).
(G)(2) provides: “Where termination of employment of an employee who is temporarily disabled due to pregnancy or a related medical condition is caused by an employment policy under which insufficient or no maternity leave is available, such termination shall constitute unlawful sex discrimination.”
(G)(5) provides: “Women shall not be penalized in their conditions of employment because they require time away from work on account of childbearing. When, under the employer’s leave policy the female employee would qualify for leave, then childbearing must be considered by the employer to be a justification for leave of absence for female employees for a reasonable period of time. For example, if the female meets the equally applied minimum length of service requirements for leave time, she must be granted a reasonable leave on account of childbearing.”
The Court recognized the potential tension between these two provisions. (G)(2) appears to indicate that a policy providing no leave is discriminatory, while (G)(5) states that a uniform minimum-length-of-service requirement for leave eligibility is permissible. But:
Reading these rules in light of the statutory purpose, Ohio Adm.Code 4112-5-05(G)(2) must mean that when an employee is otherwise eligible for leave, the employer cannot lawfully terminate that employee for violating a policy that provides no leave or insufficient leave for temporary disability due to pregnancy or a related condition…. This interpretation of the rule harmonizes (G)(2) with (G)(5), which specifies that when a woman qualifies for leave, the leave provided for childbearing must be reasonable.
Thus, an employer may terminate a pregnant employee who has not yet met a minimum-length-of-service requirement under a neutral leave policy. There are a three key takeaways for employers from this case.
Leave policies must be neutral. An employer cannot have a maternity leave policy with a length-of-service requirement, and a different leave policy for other situations with no length-of-service requirement, or one of a shorter duration.
Employers do not have to offer maternity leave to employees. However, if leave is offered for any reason, it must include maternity leave in at least the same amount and on the same conditions as other types of leave.
Merely having a neutral policy does not grant an employer carte blanche to terminate pregnant employees or new moms. The policy must still be applied equally to all employees with similarly disabling conditions. If new-employee Bill in accounting needs six weeks off to recover from back surgery, you cannot let Bill take the time unless you are prepared to similarly ignore the length-of-service requirement for all pregnant employees. Otherwise, you are opening yourself up to a claim of pretext—that the application of the facially neutral policy is a pretext for pregnancy discrimination.