Sunday, November 4, 2007

OCRC backtracks on new maternity leave regulations

In a stunning turn of events that will surely please small business owners, the version of Ohio's new maternity leave regulations that the Ohio Civil Rights Commission will present to the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review does not contain a blanket right to 12 weeks of pregnancy and childbirth leave. Instead, 12 weeks of leave is only to be mandated "when medically necessary."
Where an adverse employment action taken against an employee who is temporarily limited, in part or in whole, in her ability to work due to pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition is based upon an employment policy or practice under which less than twelve weeks of paid or unpaid pregnancy, childbirth or maternity leave is available when medically recommended, such policy shall be presumed to have a disparate impact on women and constitutes unlawful sex discrimination unless justified by business necessity. OAC 4112-5-05-(G)(4).

The "medically recommended" language did not appear in the originally published version of the approved regulations, and appears to have been slipped in by the Commission at the last minute.

Thus, the new regulation, which this morning's Plain Dealer reports would most likely be in effect by mid-December, will now require companies with four or more employees, including new and part-time employees, to offer three months' unpaid maternity leave, when recommended medically. In other words, businesses will only have to provide as much leave as certified by an employees' physician. The PD quotes one local attorney as being skeptical that doctors would honestly represent their patients' needs for leave, and may certify on request 12 weeks even though not necessarily medically necessary. I can only speak from experience that when my wife gave birth, her doctor would only certify her medically necessary leave for 8 weeks, and he told us it would have been 6 weeks if she hadn't had a C-section. My guess is that more often than not, doctors will stick to these generally accepted guidelines.

The Plain Dealer article quotes OCRC General Counsel Matthew Miko on the Commission's intent to always require a medical certification for maternity leave:

The Ohio commission says it is merely trying to clarify existing regulations that are confusing because they call for giving pregnant women "reasonable" time off, without spelling out what that is. The commission also said it always intended that women would have to get a doctor's recommendation for the leave. Language stating that was added to address business owners' worries that the plan was for a carte blanche benefit, said Matthew Miko, the commission's general counsel. The commission is not defining what form or document women will need from their doctors -- if any at all. Rather, companies will be expected to follow the same practices they use with other employees who are absent because of illness.

The regulations do not define "medically recommended," and omit any discussion of what rights a company has if it disagrees with a doctor's certification. These and many other issues will be hashed out in the courts over the next many years.

All companies should work with their employment counsel to update leave policies to include these new pregnancy leave rules, and should put in place appropriate medical leave forms for employees' doctors to use to certify the medical necessity for maternity leave.