Pregnancy is a condition that has major repercussions across all aspects of a woman's life, including employment. Pregnant women can face multiple obstacles in the workplace, from difficulty performing customary duties to unfairly denied promotions. There is good news, however: the law forbids business owners and managers from taking adverse employment actions, such as termination, against pregnant employees because of their pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions. There are several compelling reasons why employers should avoid subjecting their employees to pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.
Reason #1: Pregnancy discrimination is a civil rights violation under federal law.
Pregnant women fall under the legal protections of several employment-related laws:
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was passed on October 31, 1978, as an amendment to section 701 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The PDA holds that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes… as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”
Therefore, pregnant women cannot legally be subjected to adverse employment actions on the basis of their physical condition. Legally, they cannot be fired, refused employment, demoted, barred from promotion, denied appropriate raises, left out of training opportunities, deprived of health insurance benefits, or forced to accept reduction of job duties based on their pregnancy. It is also illegal to discriminate against women because of their potential to become pregnant.
Aside from the rights established by the PDA, pregnant women (and those with pregnancy-related conditions) are also protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows employees of certain companies—i.e., employers with at least 50 employees—to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave per year. The FMLA also forbids employers from requiring pregnant employees to take unwanted maternity leave (provided that the employee can perform her duties with or without reasonable accommodation), either before or after giving birth.
Pregnant women who suffer from health complications related to pregnancy (e.g., gestational diabetes) are also covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with temporary or permanent physical impediments.
Reason #2: Personal feelings of employees or clientele cannot be invoked to justify pregnancy discrimination.
Some employers have attempted to excuse adverse actions against pregnant employees by pointing to the discomfort that the company's personnel or customers allegedly feel when interacting with a pregnant woman. Under the law, this is not a valid excuse for discriminatory action.
Similarly, women cannot legally be discriminated against in the workplace because they have had, or are planning to have, an abortion. While employers are generally not required to offer insurance coverage for abortions, they must cover medical complications associated with an abortion.
Reason #3: Pregnancy discrimination can result in serious legal penalties.
The courts can impose substantial punishments on employers who flout the PDA and similar laws. These penalties may include the following:
- Mandated hiring/reinstatement/promotion of affected employee
- Back pay for affected employee
- Compensatory and punitive damages
- Reimbursement of plaintiff's court costs
Pregnancy discrimination law is not a simple matter. To succeed in court, you need experienced legal professionals on your side. Contact Barrett & Farahany for a free consultation if you believe you have experienced pregnancy discrimination at work.