At the end of the most recent legislative session, the Massachusetts Legislature passed An Act Relative to Housing Operations, Military Service and Enrichment. The purpose of the Act was to give greater access to housing for veterans in the Commonwealth where their disability was 100% related to their military service, a laudable goal. But buried in the statute were two provisions that impact Massachusetts employers and that may require changes to your employee handbook.
The bill 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, Ch. 149, s. 52A½ required employers to allow veterans to take this time off with or without pay, at the employer’s discretion, but the amendment requires employers of 50 or more employees to provide the veteran employee with paid time off if the veteran takes time off on Veterans Day to participate in services in their community. Employers may not have a Veterans Day/Memorial Day Leave provision in their handbooks, but if you are a covered employer, and have such a provision in your handbook, you will need to amend it to provide paid leave to veterans who ask for leave on Veterans Day. If you don’t have a handbook provision covering this leave, you should be sure that your Human Resources Department understands your obligations under this little known Massachusetts statute. Note that the leave provisions do not 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 statutes: for purposes of this 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.
In addition, the bill amends the state’s anti-discrimination law, Mass. Gen. L. Ch. 151B by adding the term “status as a veteran” to the list of protected classes. Previously, Ch. 151B only applied to individuals who were actively serving in the military, but now the statute also protects veterans from discrimination. Presumably, the definitions of veteran cross-referenced in other sections of the HOME Act will apply here as well. Employers should check their employee handbooks to see if veteran status is already listed among the protected classes in their anti-discrimination provisions, including their anti-harassment policy, and add this to the list if it is not there already.
This bill was passed as “emergency legislation,” so it is effective upon signature, meaning that as of July 2016, veteran status has been a protected class in Massachusetts.