Employees who are pregnant have several concerns they contend with including when and how to tell their employer, how their employer may react, how their pregnancy may impact their job and career opportunities, what kind of 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 are not necessarily allowed to be forced to resign due to pregnancy. However, there are other ways in which an employer may create a discriminatory environment against an employee due to their pregnancy.
What is Pregnancy Discrimination?
Pregnancy discrimination can occur when an employee is fired, is denied an interview for a job or an opportunity to be hired, is turned down for a raise or promotion, or otherwise experiences discrimination as a result of being pregnant, having been pregnant, or even planning to be pregnant.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is a federal statute that specifically forbids discriminatory actions against a pregnant employee that include: hiring (or not hiring), firing, actions affecting fringe benefits including health insurance, actions affecting salary and compensation, job assignments, job training, career advancement opportunities, and other terms of employment.
Importantly, the Act applies not only to pregnancy but also to childbirth, or related medical conditions. Employers who have less than 15 employees are exempt from the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Essentially, the Act requires that pregnancy and pregnancy-related conditions be treated like any other disability by employers.
This means, if a pregnant employee is unable to fulfill their job functions due to pregnancy or pregnancy-related condition, employers may offer a pregnant employee light duty, modified tasks, alternative assignments, disability leave, or leave without pay.
For example, if your doctor orders that you should not lift heavy items and part of your job requires you to be able to do that, then your employer needs to be prepared to provide reasonable accommodation for the rest of your pregnancy.
Conditions related to pregnancy that may apply include preeclampsia (dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy) and gestational diabetes (a form of diabetes developed during pregnancy).
An employer may also have to provide reasonable accommodation for a pregnant employee so long as the accommodation would not create undue hardship.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act also forbids harassment of employees who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or suffering from pregnancy-related conditions. Harassment must be so frequent and severe as to create a hostile work environment.
Workplace actions could also be considered harassment if they result in an adverse employment decision such as denial of a promotion due to pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions.
Besides the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the federal Family Medical Leave Act also offers pregnant employees some protections including protections for an employee who wishes to take leave due to pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions.
Individual states may also offer additional protections to pregnant employees against employment discrimination.
What is the EEOC?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that enforces laws protecting employers against discrimination in the workplace. This includes pregnant employees.
The EEOC was founded in 1965 when Congress enacted much of the civil rights legislation we know of today.
When there is a claim of discrimination against an employer, the EEOC will usually investigate the allegations. Discrimination based on pregnancy is included in the types of workplace discrimination that the EEOC investigates.
Within ten days of receiving a complaint, the EEOC will notify the employer and then begin its investigation. If an employee feels they have been the victim of discrimination, they must first exhaust administrative remedies with the EEOC before trying the case in the court system.
The EEOC’s investigation may include requesting interviews with the employee, the employer, other interested parties, and reviewing pertinent documents.
After 180 days, the complainant (employee who filed the discrimination complaint) may request permission from the EEOC to file a complaint in the court system.
When the EEOC’s investigation is complete, the agency will issue a decision letter detailing its determination of whether there is reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred. The letter will also contain a summary of the agency’s investigation.
If the agency finds there is not reasonable grounds to believe discrimination occurred, the investigation will be concluded. Once concluded, the complainant will generally have the right to file suit against the employer in court.
If the agency finds that there is reasonable grounds to believe discrimination occurred, the agency must first attempt to essentially mediate and remedy the situation between the employer and employee.
If mediation is unsuccessful, then either the employee or the employer have the right to file suit in the court system.
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. Not only are there federal statutes that forbid this, but there are usually state protections as well.
If you believe you have been the victim of pregnancy discrimination, contact an experienced employment law attorney today.