In one of his last acts before leaving office, Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law a new Parental Leave Act amending the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act ("MMLA") on January 7. The MMLA currently requires employers with six or more employees to provide female employees who have been employed for at least three months as a full-time employee with eight weeks of leave "for the purpose of giving birth or adopting a child." The new Parental Leave Act expands the MMLA to provide eight weeks of leave to both male and female employees who have been employed for at least three months. The new law goes into effect April 7.

As before, the new Parental Leave Act requires employers to restore employees taking leave to the same or similar position upon their return to work. However, unlike the old law, leave beyond eight weeks may now also be protected. An employer who agrees to provide an employee with more than eight weeks' leave must reinstate the employee at the end of the extended leave, unless the employer clearly informs the employee in writing prior to the start of the leave and prior to any subsequent extension of the leave that taking longer than eight weeks will result in denial of reinstatement or loss of other rights and benefits. This provision effectively reverses the Supreme Judicial Court's 2010 decision in Global NAPs, Inc. v. Awiszus, which held that the MMLA protected only the first eight weeks of an employee's 10-week, employer-approved leave.

In addition, the Parental Leave Act reiterates that leave may be paid or unpaid at the discretion of the employer. Accordingly, employers should specify in their written policies whether such leave (or any part thereof) will be paid or unpaid. The law also notes that two parents working for the same employer are entitled only to eight weeks of leave in the aggregate for the birth or adoption of the same child.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has previously issued guidelines on the MMLA, and we anticipate that it will eventually issue new guidance related to the expanded rights created by the Parental Leave Act. In the meantime, employers should review and revise their existing polices as necessary to comply with the requirements of this new law.