Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Maternity leave issues continue to confound employers

Maternity leave is one of the most misunderstood employment law issues for businesses. Two laws generally govern workplace maternity leave. First, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which mandates 12 weeks of maternity leave for employees who worked at least 1,250 hours in the prior 12 months for businesses with 50 or more employees. Secondly, the employment discrimination laws require that pregnant women be treated no differently than people with similarly debilitating conditions.
Ohio employers often misbelieve that if they are too small for FMLA coverage or if the FMLA does not cover a specific employee, they can deny maternity leave under a neutral leave of absence policy. As Nursing Care Mgmt. of America v. Ohio Civil Rights Commission (Licking Cty. 3/11/09) illustrates, under Ohio law employers that do not give all pregnant employees a reasonable amount of maternity leave, regardless of the employer’s leave policy, act at their own peril.
Pataskala Oaks Care Center had a neutral leave of absence policy that provided 12 weeks of leave for those employees with at least one year of service. After working at Pataskala Oaks for eight months, Tiffany McFee provided a note from her doctor stating that she was medically unable to work because of pregnancy-related swelling, and that she could return to work six weeks after delivery. Pataskala Oaks terminated her employment three days after delivery because she did not qualify for leave under its policy. The appellate court ruled that Pataskala Oaks committed unlawful sex discrimination by not granting McFee a reasonable maternity leave.
Ohio has specific regulations that cover maternity and childbirth leaves of absence – Ohio Admin. Code 4112-5-05(G). The key part of that section provides:
(2) 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.
Pataskala Oaks argued that it had a leave policy, but McFee did not qualify under it because of her short tenure. The Court did not buy Pataskala Oak’s argument:
Termination of an employee disabled due to pregnancy is prohibited if the employer provides no maternity leave or insufficient maternity under its employment policy. In this case, it is undisputed that Pataskala Oaks had no maternity leave available to McFee at the time of her pregnancy disability….
Pataskala Oaks does not deny that McFee requested maternity leave, and that it terminated McFee without providing her maternity leave for a reasonable period of time. Pursuant to 4112-05-05(G)(2) such termination “shall constitute unlawful sex discrimination”.
This case is important for all Ohio businesses. Ohio law requires that all pregnant employee be provided a “reasonable” maternity leave, regardless of the the employer’s size, the employee’s tenure, or the language of a leave policy. If an employee asks for maternity on her first day of employment, it must be given and she must be restored at the end of the leave. The open issue is what “reasonable” means. Is it a fixed amount of time? Set by a doctor’s certification? Does it include bonding with a newborn or is it limited to medical necessity? These open questions will be answered on a case-by-case basis. What we know for sure is that zero maternity leave is a quick road to liability.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.
For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or