Motherhood is a big deal. You may have planned on returning to work after the baby was born, but either circumstances have changed or you have changed or, most likely, a combination of both. If you took a maternity leave, you might be wondering whether you can quit your job at this point, or what the repercussions might be if you do leave.
There are legal, ethical, interpersonal, and professional issues to consider when giving your notice after taking maternity leave. As for your legal rights, you may not be able to say goodbye to an employer without repercussions. Although nothing can take the place of good legal advice from an attorney familiar with your particular situation, I compiled a list of points to consider when making your decision.
1. There is no law requiring you to return to work after maternity leave
You may have heard of the federal Family Medical Leave Act (or FMLA) and the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (or MMLA), which was recently expanded to include Parental Leave. They are laws that require employers to keep your job available to you while you are out on parental leave. These laws do not require your employer to pay you during your maternity leave, or to require you to return to work.
Many employers aren’t big enough to have FMLA or MMLA apply to them. If they aren’t big enough for FMLA or MMLA to apply, they don’t even have to save your job for you during maternity leave.
2. Every workplace has different maternity leave rules
There is no Massachusetts law requiring employers to pay your salary during your leave. If FMLA does not apply to your workplace, there is no law requiring it to provide health insurance, either. These are benefits provided by the company, either directly or through a short-term disability policy. It is up to the employer, therefore, to determine the rules for those benefits.
Where are those rules written? Every workplace is different, so you may have to poke around a little to find them. Here are some suggestions for where to find your employer’s policies:
- If you are part of a union, your collective bargaining agreement may state the parental leave and termination policies.
- They may have been sent to you when they offered you the job or after you accepted the job.
- They may be in the “Employee Handbook” or buried deep in your “New Employee Orientation” materials.
If you’re still not having any luck finding them on your own, talk to someone in Human Resources about their parental leave policies. Although not required, it is a good practice for your employer to have a written policy for you to review; and it should be made available to you.
What should you look for? Look for policies and procedures regarding “maternity leave,” “parental leave,” “FMLA,” “MMLA,” “termination,” “health insurance eligibility,” and “short-term disability.” If none of those turn up a policy, read the index to see if anything jumps out at you as possibly relating to maternity leave or termination.
You may find that the policy requires you to return to work after leave. If it does, a well-written policy will also state what happens if you do not return from maternity leave. Many policies require the employee to pay back the salary she earned while on leave and/or the health insurance premiums the employer paid during her maternity leave. The termination policy might require a certain amount of notice to your employer before you leave.
3. Your employer cannot hold back your last paycheck
What happens if your employer requires you to pay back your maternity leave salary and/or its portion of the health insurance premiums it paid on your behalf, but you decide to quit after you received those benefits? Your employer can request them from you and may be able to commence a court proceeding to get repaid.
Your employer cannot refuse to issue your last paycheck, take away vacation days, or get reimbursed by holding back your last paycheck or payment for accrued vacation days. Your employer must pay you your last paycheck, through the last day you were entitled to payment.
More likely, your employer will ask you to sign a severance agreement that includes your promise to pay back the amount they believe you owe. If you’re presented with that kind of document, be sure to verify the numbers yourself and read it carefully before signing. You may want to have an attorney review it before you sign it — and your employer should give you time to do so. Your signature on the agreement acknowledges the debt. If you don’t voluntarily pay the employer, the employer can file a breach of contract action in court — based on the agreement you signed. The agreement is powerful evidence that you owe the money and you agreed with the amounts listed.
In the end, an employer cannot force you to return to work. Although you can be on the hook for your salary and/or health insurance premiums during your leave, your employer cannot take that amount out of your last paycheck. If an employer gives you a document to sign, you may want an attorney to review and explain it to you before you sign.
The information in this article is not legal advice. If you would like advice regarding your legal rights and guidance in your particular situation, please consider contacting me or another attorney licensed to practice in your state.