Executive Summary: In 2013, the Maryland legislature passed the Reasonable Accommodations for Disabilities Due to Pregnancy Act requiring employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodation for individuals with a disability "caused or contributed to by pregnancy." Then, one year later, the legislature enacted the Maryland Parental Leave Act which requires employers with at least 15 employees in Maryland to provide eligible employees with six workweeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child.  These new statutes dramatically enhance the protections for pregnant employees and provide job-protected parental leave for both female and male employees.

The Reasonable Accommodations for Disabilities Due to Pregnancy Act

The Reasonable Accommodations for Disabilities Due to Pregnancy Act (the "Maryland Pregnancy Act") ensures that temporary disabilities caused by pregnancy or childbirth are treated the same as other temporary disabilities for all job-related purposes.  Under the new law, if a pregnant employee requests a reasonable accommodation, the employer must "explore" various job adjustments with the employee.  The accommodations listed in the statute include changing the employee's job duties; changing the employee's work hours; relocating the employee's work area; providing mechanical or electrical aids; providing leave; or transferring the employee to a less strenuous or less hazardous position.

The Maryland Pregnancy Act directs the employer to consider "all possible means" of providing a reasonable accommodation.  A proposed accommodation need not be provided if it creates an undue hardship for the employer.  There appears to be an exception, however, for requests for transfers to less strenuous positions.  In such cases, the Act provides some specific triggers mandating a transfer if certain conditions are satisfied.  For example, if an employer already has a policy or practice of allowing transfers for temporarily disabled employees (e.g., a "light duty" program for employees injured on the job), the employer must also allow the disabled pregnant employee to transfer.

The Maryland Pregnancy Act has a specific provision that requires covered employers to post, "in a conspicuous location," a notice regarding the Act's protections and also revise employee handbooks to include information concerning an employee's right to reasonable accommodations and/or leave for a disability caused by pregnancy.

The Maryland Parental Leave Act

The Maryland Parental Leave Act ("PLA") was effective October 1, 2014.  It provides that eligible employees are entitled to six workweeks of unpaid parental leave during any 12-month period for the birth of the employee's child or the placement of a child with the employee for adoption or foster care.  The law applies to any employers (including regional and multi-state employers) that employ at least 15, but not more than 49, individuals in Maryland during 20 or more workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year.  

To be eligible for leave under the PLA, an employee must have been employed for at least 12 months and have worked 1,250 hours prior to the start of the leave.  An employer may deny requested leave to eligible employees only if the denial is necessary to prevent "substantial and grievous economic injury" to its operations.  During the parental leave, an employee can only be terminated "for cause, " which is not defined in the statute.  At the conclusion of PLA leave, the employee must be restored to his or her previous position or to an equivalent position with equivalent benefits, pay, and "other terms and conditions of employment."

If an employee is enrolled in the employer's group health plan, the employer must maintain group health plan coverage for the duration of the leave, up to six weeks.  Additionally, the employee must pay his or her share of any group health plan premiums while on leave.  The PLA provides that an employer may require an employee to substitute any accrued, paid time off for unpaid parental leave.  Deductions for the employee's portion of the health coverage premium could be taken from such paid leave.

The PLA also contains an anti-retaliation provision and authorizes the Maryland Commissioner of Labor and Industry to investigate compliance with the Act and initiate lawsuits on behalf of injured employees. Employees also have a right to bring a private cause of action against an employer for violations of the PLA.  In such an action, the employee may recover damages equal to the amount of wages, salary, or employment benefits denied, as well as payment of attorneys' fees.

Bottom Line for Employers

Employees who claim they were discharged because of pregnancy or denied time off to care for their children usually make very sympathetic plaintiffs.  It is always a struggle to establish the validity of an employer's pressing need to terminate a female employee who is either expecting a baby or has just given birth.  The pitfalls in such a case are quite numerous.  Employers must educate themselves as to the new protections for pregnant employees in the Maryland Pregnancy Act and the parental leave requirements of the Maryland Parental Leave Act.