What happens if I don’t go back to work after maternity leave? Are there penalties?

The question of going back to work after maternity leave isn’t always an easy one, especially if you’re on the fence. Whether it’s a last minute gut decision or something you’ve always planned for, working moms often ask if there are potential ramifications or penalties of not going back to work after leave.

Unless there was a contractual obligation – like a signed agreement – for you to return to work after maternity leave, an employer usually wouldn’t have legal recourse. But, in some instances, an employer can require you to pay back the health benefit premium if you don’t go back. Bahhh, what!? So, before you send in your resignation letter, let’s talk more about the laws allowing employers to recover premiums and what some of the loop holes are.

The following applies to California moms who will take FMLA leave followed by CFRA leave. 

According to CFRA laws, “an employer may recover the premium that the employer paid for maintaining group health care coverage during any unpaid part of the CFRA leave.” (Emphasis is my own). Note the emphasis on UNPAID. If you are eligible to take 6 weeks of paid PFL during CFRA, you’re technically only on the hook to pay back premiums during the last 6 weeks of UNPAID CFRA. Also as a reminder, per FMLA and CFRA laws an employer must maintain your health care benefits while on leave – read more common questions here.

While making the life decision to be the full-time caretaker of your child is an exceptional and valid one, there may be other circumstances that require you not to return back to work. Your employer cannot require you pay back your portion of the premium if your failure to return was caused by the continuation, recurrence or onset of a serious health condition that would entitle you to family or medical leave, or by other circumstances beyond your control. The term “circumstances beyond the employee’s control” is quite nebulous. The CFRA laws don’t specifically define it, but the FMLA does:

“Other circumstances beyond the employee’s control. Examples of other circumstances beyond the employee’s control are necessarily broad. They include such situations as where a parent chooses to stay home with a newborn child who has a serious health condition; an employee’s spouse is unexpectedly transferred to a job location more than 75 miles from the employee’s worksite; a relative or individual other than a covered family member has a serious health condition and the employee is needed to provide care; the employee is laid off while on leave; or, the employee is a key employee who decides not to return to work upon being notified of the employer’s intention to deny restoration because of substantial and grievous economic injury to the employer’s operations and is not reinstated by the employer. Other circumstances beyond the employee’s control would not include a situation where an employee desires to remain with a parent in a distant city even though the parent no longer requires the employee’s care, or a parent chooses not to return to work to stay home with a well, newborn child.” (825.213 (2))

Okay, so now that we know your employer can make you pay back your premium if you don’t go back to work, let’s discuss an interesting loop hole. The CFRA law states that “an employee is deemed to have failed to return from leave if he/she works less than 30 days after returning from CFRA leave.” It goes further on to say that “an employee who retires during CFRA leave or during the first 30 days after returning is deemed to have returned from leave.” What does this mean? According to the laws, as long as you go back to work for at least 30 days there is no risk of you having to pay back your premium.

But here’s the thing…I’m not saying you should just go back to work for 30 days and quit. I’m just simply translating the law. If you absolutely know you aren’t going back to work, or even have doubts, talk to your manager or a trusted HR rep about your situation to confirm these details.

For non-California moms or folks who didn’t take CFRA leave, FMLA laws around this is similar. Read the full text of FMLA laws under the “Employer Recovery of Benefits Costs” section here

 

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