Working While Pregnant: Know Your Rights

Pregnancy and work don’t have to be situations completely at odds with each other. Even the most strenuous jobs can make room for a pregnant worker, and in most cases, employers are required by law to assist with this.

In fact, employment rights law offers protection to pregnant workers on three fronts: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).

Pregnant Workers and Title VII

The federal civil rights of most workers are protected under Title VII through provisions concerning several types of discrimination. Workers who experience discrimination based on certain personal characteristics have legal remedy under this well-known employment rights law. These personal characteristics include race, color, national origin, disability, religion, age and sex.

Being treated unfairly based on a pregnancy could fall under a number of different categories namely sex or disability discrimination. As sex discrimination, being treated unfairly at work due to a pregnancy deals directly with a worker’s status as a female, and thus could be actionable under Title VII.

Although most would not consider a pregnancy a literal disability, for purposes of the law, it may fall under this category. Another important federal law, the ADA, also considers a pregnancy as a disability under its definition of the term and provides legal remedies for discrimination based on the conditions of pregnancy at work.

Pregnant Workers and the PDA

Beyond Title VII and the ADA, pregnant workers have yet another source of legal protection from discrimination. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is also federal law. It prohibits the discrimination of female workers based on pregnancy.

The PDA is actually an amendment to Title VII added in 1978. The amendment was enacted in order to remedy disturbances among the female work population at the time due to an unfavorable Supreme Court decision in a case called General Electric Co. v. Gilbert. In Gilbert, the Court held that pregnant workers could not be included in a company insurance plan that allowed disability absences for illnesses and accidents, excluding pregnancy.

When female workers organized and pushed for change, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted, overturning the decision in Gilbert.

Common Pregnancy Discrimination Fact Patterns

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the PDA as well as Title VII and the ADA. Since Gilbert, the EEOC has represented a number of employees claiming violations of federal law based on pregnancy discrimination. Each case involves several common fact patterns.

For example, in EEOC v. High Speed Enterprise, Inc. d/b/a Subway, the Court ruled that pregnancy discrimination had occurred under Title VII when the company refused to hire an applicant because she was pregnant when she applied for a position. The employee was later awarded punitive damages.

Another common fact pattern involves changes to health insurance plans or denial of access to benefits due to a pregnancy. In EEOC v. HCS Medical Staffing, Inc., when the company terminated a female worker’s employment and health care coverage while she was still hospitalized and recovering from a Cesarean section, the Court awarded her back pay with interest, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

Retaliation against Pregnant Workers

Not only are pregnant workers protected by federal law against discrimination based on their pregnancy, they are also protected against employer retaliation for complaining about such discrimination.

This means that even after a pregnant worker files suit or even complains to supervisors or managers alleging discrimination on the part of her employer, she cannot be the subject of adverse employment decisions, such as termination or demotion. Of course, such a claim would require the employee to prove that any adverse action from her employer is precisely related to the complaints of discrimination she previously made.

Must an Employer Provide Accommodations to Pregnant Workers?

Suppose your job as a forklift operator requires certain amounts of heavy lifting and activity that you cannot perform once you learn of your pregnancy. If you request it, must your employer allow you to cut back on this kind of activity while you are pregnant? Would the employer be obligated by law to change your job duties due to your pregnancy?

The answer to these and similar questions regarding pregnancy accommodations is yes. Both the Americans with Disabilities Act and to some extent Title VII, requires employers to comply with requests for pregnancy accommodation.

However, employees should keep in mind not all requests for accommodation warrant an affirmative response from employers. Federal law also maintains that if an accommodation request is unreasonable or requires undue hardship to the business, the employer is not required to honor the request.

What is undue hardship? This wording in pregnancy discrimination law refers to requests for accommodation that would be too costly, or interfere with normal business practices. For example, if a pregnant worker requested nine months of maternity leave as a pregnancy accommodation, the employer would not be obligated by law to harm its business practices in order to accommodate the worker’s request.

However, a worker needn’t be apprehensive about making reasonable requests for accommodation that fall within the limits of the law. Such requests might include asking for light duty, changes in work schedule, reassignment to a vacant position or even job restructuring.

Know Your Pregnancy Rights in the Workplace

As a pregnant worker, you have the right to be treated fairly while on the job. An employer is not legally allowed to treated pregnant workers differently from other workers. In fact under the PDA, employers must treat pregnant workers as well as they treat temporarily disabled workers. This means that termination or failing to hire or promote a worker because she is pregnant as well as similar forms of adverse action could be a violation of federal law.