I have just returned to work after maternity leave. What are my legal rights?

Additional Information: I have recently gone back to work after taking maternity leave. Before I went on leave, I created a new work schedule with my manager for when I returned, which included a day working from home every week. One week before I was to return to work, my manager emailed to say our VP did not approve the schedule and I needed to make a new one. Specifically, I could not work the day at home and needed to do all my hours in the office.

It is very common for staff to work from home at my organization, either as planned days home, unplanned (ex. sick days), bad weather days, etc, and this was why my manager and I included a day at home in my new schedule.

Now I am being told I can’t do this day at home each week, while other staff members continue to work from home, to the point where it is marked on their Outlook calendars. The underlying message is that I can’t do this because I have a baby, although no one has said that outright. Do I have any recourse here? I’m just looking for things to be equitable.

ATTORNEY ANSWER:

It sounds like there could be some help for you legally, though the result of any efforts to correct this will be determined by the full set of circumstances and, to a large degree, by the reasonableness or lack of reasonableness, as the case may be, of your employer. Your own flexibility on the work-at-home issue might also come into play since, regardless who is right or wrong from a legal standpoint, compromise on issues like yours may be superior to the strains and expenses of litigation (which frequently is accompanied by job loss).

Under the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act, women who work full-time for 90 days or more are generally entitled to eight weeks of leave and a return to their jobs thereafter. This normally involves the very same job and the same schedule, and women who seek to amend things run the risk of losing their return-to-work rights. Employers are not, however, permitted to treat pregnant women differently from other employees. Once a woman returns to work on whatever terms may be applicable, they must continue this approach. Where an employer imposes different requirements or expectations on the mother of a newborn, it runs the risk of violating other anti-discrimination laws that bar differential treatment of employees based on gender, race and the like.

In your case, it appears that both these sets of laws may be in play. Though you never intended to return to the same job with the same hours following the birth of your child, you did make arrangements for your new schedule with your boss before you went on leave. This could bind the employer, which may not have been required to give you the new schedule but chose to do so. The attempt to renege on this arrangement implicates the Maternity Leave Act, since the employer is preventing you from returning to work. Though the company might argue that the Act is not applicable because of the new schedule and contend that it is in fact permitting you to return to the same job you previously performed (just without the work-at-home option), it will still face questions over why it is treating you differently from others. If you can point to male workers or women without newborns who are working at home for one day or more per week, you may put the company in a difficult spot from a legal standpoint.

Having said all this, you should take care before deciding how to proceed. As noted above, lawsuits take a long time, can be expensive, and always come with uncertainty. The price of demanding strict compliance with the law, as you interpret it, may be loss of your job or other difficulties. Though your lawsuit might then ensue, you could be without work while it winds its way through the legal system.

Attorney Jack Merrill is a Framingham, MA employment lawyer providing legal services to employees, employers and businesses throughout the Boston metro west and Worcester County region including Ashland, Dedham, Framingham, Franklin, Hopkinton, Maynard, Marlborough, Milford, Natick, Needham, Newton, Shrewsbury, Sudbury, Waltham, and Worcester, Massachusetts.