Employees who are pregnant must contend with several concerns, including when and how to tell their employer, anticipating how their employer may react, how their pregnancy may impact their job and career, whether leave is available, and more.
It used to be in many cases that when a woman who worked got pregnant, her employer would ask her to resign. Now, women cannot be forced to resign because they have become pregnant. However, there are other ways in which an employer may try to create a discriminatory environment against an employee due to their pregnancy.
What Is Pregnancy Discrimination?
Pregnancy discrimination can occur when an employee is fired, denied an interview for a job, or denied an opportunity to be hired. It can also occur when being turned down for a raise or promotion or otherwise experiencing discrimination due to being pregnant, having been pregnant, or even planning to become pregnant.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is a federal statute that specifically forbids discriminatory actions against a pregnant employee that, include the following:
- Hiring (or not hiring)
- Actions affecting salary and compensation
- Job assignments
- Job training
- Career advancement opportunities
- Other terms of employment
- Actions affecting fringe benefits, including health insurance.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act exempts employers who have fewer than 15 employees. Essentially, the Act requires that employers deal with pregnancy and pregnancy-related conditions just as they deal with any other disability. Notably, the Act applies not only to pregnancy but also to childbirth, or related medical conditions.
Suppose a pregnant employee is unable to fulfill their job functions due to pregnancy or a pregnancy-related condition. In that case, employers may offer a pregnant employee light duty, modified tasks, alternative assignments, disability leave, or leave without pay.
For example, if a pregnant woman’s doctor orders her to refrain from lifting heavy items and part of her job requires her to do that, her employer must provide reasonable accommodation for the rest of her pregnancy.
Conditions related to pregnancy that may apply include preeclampsia, which is dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy, and gestational diabetes, a form of diabetes that develops during pregnancy.
An employer may also have to provide reasonable accommodation for a pregnant employee as long as doing so does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.
Harassment of employees who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or suffering from pregnancy-related conditions is prohibited by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. In order to give cause to file a complaint or a lawsuit, any harassment would have to be so frequent and severe as to create a hostile work environment.
It might also be considered harassment if the conduct in the workplace were to result in the employer making an adverse employment decision, such as denial of a promotion due to pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions.
In addition to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the federal Family Medical Leave Act also offers pregnant employees protections, including the right for a pregnant employee to take leave due to pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions.
Individual states may also offer more protections for pregnant employees against employment discrimination than federal law does. All states have laws that protect pregnant women from discrimination, except the following:
- North Carolina
- South Dakota
Georgia and Mississippi only offer pregnancy discrimination protection to women whom their state governments employ.
The laws vary significantly from state to state. For example, certain types of employers are exempt from pregnancy anti-discrimination laws. In 10 states, certain kinds of organizations associated with religion are exempt from the coverage of pregnancy anti-discrimination laws. In seven states, private clubs, such as certain social clubs, are exempt. In five states, the employers of housekeepers and maids for their households are exempt.
A few examples are as follows:
- California: Women disabled by pregnancy are entitled to the same rights as those with similar temporary disabilities. Employers must make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees who have work-related limitations.
- Illinois: Illinois law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant women with work-related limitations.
- Massachusetts: Massachusetts has enacted the Massachusetts Pregnant Workers Fairness Act which bans employment discrimination based on pregnancy and pregnancy-related conditions. It offers more protection than federal law because it applies to all employers with 6 or more employees. Women who may be temporarily disabled by pregnancy have the same rights as those with other temporary disabilities. They also have additional rights with respect to maternity leave.
- Ohio: Ohio has a progressive law that requires employers to allow a pregnant woman a reasonable period of maternity leave. In addition, the woman is entitled to resume the same position or one that is similar when she returns to work.
- Vermont: Vermont also has a progressive law. An employer must allow a pregnant employee up to twelve weeks of leave for pregnancy and childbirth. When the employee returns from leave, she is entitled to resume her former or similar position.
- Virginia: In Virginia, pregnant women are entitled to the same rights as those with similar temporary disabilities.
- Washington: In the state of Washington, Women disabled by pregnancy are entitled to the same rights as those with similar temporary disabilities.
Pregnancy discrimination laws offer protection against firing by employers motivated only by circumstances related to an employee’s pregnancy and maternity. Although it is usually not stated expressly, these laws also cover other related conditions, such as breastfeeding, childbirth, and other related medical conditions.
What Is the EEOC?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency founded in 1965 with the enactment of civil rights legislation. It enforces laws protecting employees against discrimination in the workplace, including employees who are pregnant.
When there is a discrimination claim against an employer, the EEOC usually investigates the allegations, including those that claim discrimination based on pregnancy.
Within 10 days of receiving a complaint, the EEOC notifies the employer named in the complaint, beginning its investigation. Employees who believe they have been the victim of discrimination must first exhaust administrative remedies with the EEOC before they may file a lawsuit in a court of law.
The EEOC’s investigation may include the following:
- Requesting interviews with the employee
- Requesting interviews with the employer
- Requesting interviews with other interested parties
- Reviewing relevant documents
After 180 days, the employee who filed the discrimination complaint may request permission from the EEOC to file a complaint in a state or federal court.
When the EEOC’s investigation is complete, the agency issues a decision letter detailing its determination of whether there is reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred. The letter also contains a summary of the agency’s investigation.
The investigation is concluded if the agency doesn’t find any reasonable grounds to believe discrimination occurred. Once concluded, the complainant generally has the right to file a lawsuit against the employer in court.
If the agency finds reasonable grounds to believe discrimination occurred, the agency must first attempt to mediate a remedy for the situation between the employer and employee.
If mediation is unsuccessful, then either the employee or the employer has the right to file suit in court.
Do I Need a Lawyer if I Am Facing Pregnancy Related Discrimination in the Workplace?
There are plenty of things a pregnant employee should be concerned about during their pregnancy. Workplace discrimination is not one of them. There are federal statutes that prohibit this, and there are state protections in most states.
If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination because you are pregnant, you want to consult an experienced discrimination lawyer today. Your lawyer can review the facts of your situation and determine if they show discrimination. They can help you file a claim with the federal EEOC and your state’s agency that enforces its anti-discrimination laws.
It can be challenging to navigate state and federal agencies, but an experienced discrimination lawyer knows how to proceed to protect your rights best..