Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bad decision, bad business owner, just a bad day for Massachusetts mommies

I was going to write about a new topic today, but so many people emailed me articles about yesterday's unfortunate decision by the highest court in Massachusetts that I decided to go with it. The court ruled that women are entitled to no more than eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave under Massachusetts law, even if their employers offer them more time off.

Here's the link: http://www.boston.com/news/local/breaking_news/2010/08/by_jonathan_sal_6.html

Basically, the head of a private, Quincy-based telecomm company called Global Naps fired a housekeeper upon her return from an eleven-week unpaid leave, which she had negotiated in advance with the company. The CEO's name is Frank Gangi. If you would like to call him and tell him what you think of him and his company after you read the details of the case, their phone number is 617-507-5100.

You might be saying, "Wait! The feds allow for twelve-week unpaid leaves under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993!" But that law, which is untouched by yesterday's ruling, only applies to companies with 50 or more full-time employees located within 75 miles of each other, among other requirements. Massachusetts has a state maternity leave act dating back to 1972, which was the law at issue in the Global Naps case. It requires employers in Massachusetts (with 6 or more full-time employees) to allow eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave.

Eight weeks is pathetic, as I've noted often in prior posts, but what really sticks in my gut about the Global Naps case is that the employer made a promise to an employee (who happened to be new mom) and got away - in court- with reneging on it.

Judge Francis X. Spina, writing for the majority, suggested the housekeeper would have a remedy in the form of a breach of contract claim. Let's be real: Housekeepers aren't anywhere near the top of the corporate earning food chain. They don't make the kind of money needed to hire counsel to successfully take on a corporate legal department. Plus, we all know that the future employment prospects of any candidate who sues her last employer aren't so stellar.

Many corporate housekeepers toil during off hours, which makes upper level employees less likely to go to bat for them. Everyone knows the mail room guy and the receptionist, but how many people in your office know the person who empties the trash cans, vacuums the conference room and scrubs the toilets late at night?

I imagine that Mr. Gangi realized this when he fired the housekeeper.

Might a much loved secretary who kept candy on her desk have been treated differently? Or a saleswoman with good numbers and high public visibility? I can only speculate, of course.

Lest you think this post is too one-sided, let me say that I do sympathize with the financial pressures of SCRUPULOUS business owners. Here are three examples:

I've argued many times that the taxpayers should shoulder some responsibility for parental leaves, as they do in most Western democracies; and I've made it clear that I believe the absolute top earners (those in the highest 1 per cent) ought to pay the lion's share of the tax tab for both parental leave and child care.

If we really want to encourage entrepreneurs, we should repeal the self-employment tax, on the grounds that it seems patently un-American to tax small-business entrepreneurs, most of whom employ less than 50 people. It's important to note that the self-employment tax doesn't touch all business owners; it only assesses those who actually get their hands dirty working for their own enterprises, at a rate of 15.3 per cent. Too costly to junk? Let's waive it for the first five years of a business' existence.

Lastly, I believe meaningful legislation to REDUCE health insurance costs would take a lot of heat off small and medium sized employers who wish they could afford to do the right thing by their employees.

But none of these changes lie just around the corner. Which makes yesterday's 4-3 decision that much more depressing. Hopefully it serves as a wake up call. Moms-to-be, spread the word. If you can negotiate more leave than the law requires, make sure you get it in writing, and be doubly sure you understand the fine print.

Because I'm sure Mr. Gangi isn't the only bad apple boss out there.

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