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July 30, 2008
Maryland's Flexible Leave Law: New Requirements for Employers

Chapter 644, the Maryland Flexible Leave Act, signed May 22 and effective October 1, 2008, makes some dramatic changes to the rules governing employees' use of paid leave. The new law affects all private Maryland employers that employ 15 or more employees, engage in a business or profession in Maryland, and provide leave with pay under the terms of a union contract or an employment policy. Public employers are not affected. The term "leave with pay" encompasses sick leave, vacation time, and compensatory time.

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The new law requires employers to allow employees to use earned paid leave to take care of an illness in the employee's immediate family (defined as children, spouse, or parents). Those who earn more than one type of leave with pay may elect which type to use. Employers may not discharge, demote, suspend, discipline, or otherwise take action against an employee because the employee has exercised this right, filed a complaint, or testified or assisted in an action brought against the employer under this new requirement. The new law does not require employers to offer paid leave if they do not already do so.

According to a recent opinion letter from Assistant Attorney General Katherine Rowe, who works in the office of Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, the new law applies to any leave taken after October 1, 2008, regardless of when the leave was earned and accrued.

Reactions. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, a significant voice for employers, urged Governor Martin O'Malley to veto the bill, calling it "an unnecessary government intrusion into the employer-employee relationship that undermines employment policies." 

The chamber also cited a few other problems with the bill, including the lack of definition of the term "illness," the lack of a provision requiring employees to verify the need for the leave, and the conflict with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which covers employers of 50 or more (as opposed to 15 or more, as covered by the new Maryland law).

The Maryland affiliate of the National Federation of Independent Business, a small employer group, also opposed the bill, stating that although many small businesses make every effort to accommodate valuable employees during times of need or crisis, this legislation is an attempt by state government to micromanage employers' businesses and the relationship they build with their employees.

What to do. Maryland employers of 15 or more should revisit their paid leave policies and revise them to state that accrued leave with pay may now be used for caring for family members.

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