Now that a new Massachusetts law adding veteran status as a protected class under the state’s antidiscrimination law is in effect, employers need to take a look at their employee handbook provisions related to veterans.
At the end of the last legislative session, the Massachusetts Legislature passed An Act Relative to Housing Operations, Military Service and Enrichment. The main purpose of the law, which took effect in July, is to give veterans who have disabilities that are 100 percent related to their military service greater access to housing. But the statute contains two provisions that may require employers to revise their handbooks.
The statute amends the state’s antidiscrimination law, Mass. Gen. L. Ch. 151B, by adding the term “status as a veteran” to the list of protected classes. Previously, it applied only to individuals who were actively serving in the military, but now the law also protects veterans from discrimination. Employers should check their employee handbooks to see if veteran status is already listed among the protected classes in their antidiscrimination provisions, including their antiharassment policy, and add it to the list if it’s not already there.
The new law also amends Mass. Gen. L. Ch. 149, s. 52A½, which allows veterans who desire to participate in a Veterans Day or Memorial Day exercise, parade, or service to take time off to participate in those activities in their community of residence. Previously, the law required employers to allow veterans to take such time off with or without pay at employers’ discretion, but the amendment requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide veterans with paid time off if they take time off on Veterans Day to participate in services in their community.
Some employers may not have a Veterans Day/Memorial Day leave provision in their handbooks, but any employers covered by the new law that have such provisions will need to amend their policies to provide paid leave to veterans who ask for leave on Veterans Day. Employers that don’t have handbook provisions covering the leave must make sure they understand their obligations under this little-known Massachusetts statute.
The leave provisions don’t apply to employees whose services are “essential and critical to the public health or safety” and whose presence has been determined to be “essential to the safety and security of each such employer or property thereof.”
The statute cross-references definitions of “veteran” in other Massachusetts laws. For purposes of leave, a veteran is any person with an honorable discharge who served in any branch of the U.S. military or who served full-time in the National Guard under certain conditions. Any person who served in wartime and was awarded a service-connected disability or Purple Heart is also a qualifying veteran.
Susan G. Fentin is an editor of Massachusetts Employment Law Letter and a partner with the firm of Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., in Springfield, Massachusetts. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.