Massachusetts lawmakers passed the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act (PFMLA) as a top priority in 2018, and the law became fully effective in 2021. PFMLA is one of the most progressive legislative initiatives in the U.S. The law was designed to alleviate the family leave issues faced by 76% of Massachusetts’ families where both parents hold down jobs.
However, the PFMLA is only one of the Massachusetts employment laws that employers must follow to avoid penalties. For each of the laws, employers must comprehend the legislative nuances and the written provisions. For example, the state legislature passed employment legislation, but court decisions added judicial interpretations of statutes and regulatory guidance over the past two decades. Taken together, the law and court decisions created a unique regulatory environment within Massachusetts. To stay in compliance, Human Resources (HR) needs to stay up-to-date with the complexities of the ever-changing Massachusetts laws.
Massachusetts Laws Employers Need to Know
The following describes the Massachusetts laws that employers must know if they are to adhere to employment law mandates.
Appearance and Grooming
Except where it would cause undue hardship for the employer, Massachusetts state employment law:
- Prohibits employers from compelling employees to violate their religious practices, and
- Requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to employment policies when it comes to religious practices.
In 2008, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) of Massachusetts vacated the lower court’s ruling. It held in Brown v F.L. Roberts & Co., Inc. SJC-10155 (Dec. 2, 2008) that the employee’s request for exemption from the employer’s personal appearance policy did not constitute an undue hardship on the employer. The employee’s request was made on religious grounds. The appearance policy required all customer contact employees to remain clean-shaven and have hair clean, combed, and trimmed. The employee’s religion did not permit him to shave or cut his hair. The employer removed the employee from all customer contact and put him in a less desirable position out of sight of the customers.
A federal court that heard the same case two years before the SJC concluded that it was an undue hardship for the employer as a matter of law under Title VII. An accommodation that causes the employer to sustain more than a minimal cost is an undue hardship under Title VII.
The court holdings under both state and federal law causes concern for employers. It means they must carefully review state and federal case law whenever they consider personal appearance policies in the workplace.
In 2010, the Massachusetts state legislature passed one of the first Ban-the-Box laws. Ban-the-Box laws prohibit employers from inquiring into a prospective employee’s criminal record on an employment application. Employers are also prohibited from asking the following criminal background questions at any point during the interview process:
- Arrests or disposition that did not convict the employee;
- First misdemeanor offenses such as drunkenness, speeding, simple assault, disturbing the peace;
- Any conviction or prison time completed more than five years before the application.
In 2018, the law was amended as follows:
- The five-year misdemeanor rule was changed to three years;
- The law forbids employers to ask about expunged criminal records.
These employment law changes mean that employers should carefully review their personnel policies and hiring policies to conform to the new rules. They should also change their employment applications to include the specific statutory language required regarding expungement.
Sexual Harassment Policy Requirement
Massachusetts employment law requires all employers with more than six employees to distribute their sexual harassment policy. The policy must include specific information regarding who to contact within the company concerning sexual harassment violations, and what government agencies are available to help.
Massachusetts does not mandate sexual harassment training for managers and employees but strongly encourages employers to offer such training.
The Massachusetts state legislature provides Massachusetts employees with strong protections against pre-employment criminal background checks. In 2012, the law prohibited employers from asking about an employee’s criminal background in the initial written application.
Employers may, however, ask about the following during employment interviews:
- Felony convictions;
- Misdemeanors less than five years before the employment interview.
There are circumstances where the law permits an employer to require a criminal background check:
- Prospective employees who will work with the elderly;
- Prospective employees who apply to work in daycare centers; and
- Employment for certain financial institutions.
The law concerning criminal background checks is complex. Employers may want to consult an HR specialist with any questions.
Paid Family and Medical Leave
The provisions of the Massachusetts Paid Family Leave Act are not the same as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Congress enacted the FMLA in 1993. FMLA covers private-sector employers with more than 50 employees, public sector agencies, and schools (both public and private). Under FMLA, employees must work for the employer for at least 12 months with at least 1250 hours during that period.
The Paid Family Leave Act (PFLA) came into effect in 2018. Both employers and employees support the Act through contributions if they perform work in Massachusetts. Employers are responsible for collecting and submitting contributions on behalf of their employees.
All businesses in Massachusetts are subject to the Paid Family Leave Act, even those that are exempt from FMLA. To qualify for coverage under PFLA, employees must earn $5,400 anytime in the previous 12-month period. Eligibility does not depend on how long the employee worked for the employer.
Benefits under PFLA constitutes another big difference from FMLA coverage. PFLA provides 12 weeks of job-protected, paid family leave time off. It also provides up to 20 weeks of job-protected paid medical leave, or a 26-week combination of family leave and medical leave in one benefit period.
In contrast, FMLA provides:
- 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid family or medical leave in a calendar year, or
- 26 weeks of job-protected, unpaid family leave in a calendar year to care for a family member in the armed services.
The Compliance Challenge
HR compliance with state employment laws requires employers to obey municipal and federal laws. Keeping up with the changes to legislation and the regulatory guidance that follows is a full-time job. It may be more than the HR staff at some companies can handle. For some smaller companies, it is too expensive to hire additional HR staff to track the changes in the law. A more affordable option is to outsource HR compliance duties to a comprehensive HR outsourcing solution.
A comprehensive HR partner not only helps your business reap considerable savings in terms of both time and money. Your HR partner also takes on the statutory and regulatory compliance oversight that often burdens in-house HR staff while preventing the imposition of fines and penalties.