Women make up nearly half of the labor force today. Many working women will become pregnant at some point during their working lives. A significant portion of them will experience conflicts between their job requirements or working conditions and the physical effects of pregnancy.
Despite the growing number of women in the workforce, far too many employers routinely discriminate against pregnant employees. Employers have historically pushed women out of a broad range of professions upon becoming pregnant, including the:
- airline industry (see, for example, Condit v. United Air Lines, Inc., 631 F.2d 1136, 1137 (4th Cir. 1980) (requiring that stewardesses “shall, upon knowledge of pregnancy, discontinue flying”); Harriss v. Pan Am. World Airways, Inc., 649 F.2d 670, 673 (9th Cir. 1980) (same); Burwell v. Eastern Air Lines, Inc., 633 F.2d 361, 363 (4th Cir. 1980) (same);
- insurance industry (see, for example, Wetzel v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., 372 F. Supp. 1146, 1155 (W.D. Pa. 1974) (requiring pregnant women either to “terminate employment or to take a leave of absence at the end of the eighth month”));
- utilities industry (see, for example, Narragansett Electric Co. v. Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, 374 A.2d 1022, 1023 (R.I. 1977) (requiring pregnant women to take leave after the fifth month of pregnancy)); and the
- auto industry (see, for example, EEOC v. Chrysler Corp., 683 F.2d 146, 147 (6th Cir. 1982) (requiring pregnant women to take leave in the fifth month of pregnancy)); and
- teaching (see, for example, Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, 414 U.S. 632, 634-35 (1974) (forcing pregnant teachers to take unpaid leave five months before they were due to give birth, with no guarantee of re-employment); Clanton v. Orleans Parish School Board, 649 F.2d 1084, 1086-87 (5th Cir. 1981) (placing teachers on leave in the beginning of the sixth month of their pregnancy)).
Employment practices that discriminate against working women who become pregnant often stem from antiquated notions that pregnancy is incompatible with work, that a pregnant woman’s proper place is at home, and that pregnancy should signal the end of a woman’s working life. Today, pregnancy discrimination often occurs in low-wage jobs and traditionally male-dominated occupations.
The Harmful Consequences of Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace
Pregnancy discrimination is harmful for a variety of reasons. In addition to losing their source of income, women who are forced out of their jobs because of their pregnancies may lose their benefits, including sick leave, medical insurance coverage, and accrual of seniority. Pregnant women who are pushed out of the workforce may lose their sole source of income and be unable to provide their children with proper nutrition and healthcare. Many women who find themselves in this position are forced to go on welfare. A woman who is forced to take unpaid leave from her job during her pregnancy may have to drain her family’s savings, placing her and her family in a financially vulnerable position. Moreover, employment policies and practices that push pregnant workers out of the workplace instead of accommodating their pregnancy-related conditions perpetuate women’s second-class status in the workforce.
The Law Prohibits Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace
Congress sought to eliminate the harmful effects of pregnancy discrimination by passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII forbids covered employers from discriminating against job applicants and employees because of their sex. The PDA clarified that unlawful gender discrimination includes treating an employee or job applicant unfavorably because of her pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The PDA also requires employers to treat women affected by such conditions the same as employees who are temporarily disabled for reasons other than pregnancy or childbirth.
At the state level, the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA) provides employees with an additional layer of protection against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.
In certain cases, pregnancy discrimination may violate not only Title VII, but the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well. The ADA requires that employers reasonably accommodate a qualified job applicant or employee’s disability at work. If a woman is temporarily unable to perform her job duties because of a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, her employer must provide her with a reasonable accommodation. An employer is not, however, obligated to provide an accommodation that would impose an undue hardship on it.
Courts have treated a number of pregnancy-related medical conditions as disabilities requiring reasonable accommodations under the ADA, including:
- pelvic inflammation causing severe pain and difficulty walking and resulting in a doctor’s recommendation that an employee have certain work restrictions and take early pregnancy-related medical leave;
- symphysis pubis dysfunction causing post-partum complications and requiring physical therapy;
- complications related to a pregnancy in a breech presentation that required visits to the emergency room and bed rest; and
- a situation in which a doctor characterized a woman’s pregnancy as “high risk” and recommended that the woman limit her work hours and not lift heavy objects, even though the doctor did not identify a specific impairment.
A job applicant or employee who needs an accommodation at work because of a pregnancy-related impairment must inform the employer of their needs and explain how their impairment limits their work in some way. They must also explain to the employer the nature of their impairment and cannot assume that the employer will already know or understand it.
Examples of “reasonable accommodations” include authorizing a pregnant employee to perform “light duty,” assigning less physically demanding tasks to a pregnant employee, and placing a pregnant employee on paid disability leave if the employer would place employees with other forms of temporary disabilities on paid leave.
In 1993, Congress extended the rights of expectant and new mothers in the workforce even further by passing the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Under the FMLA, covered employers must provide eligible employees with up to twelve workweeks of leave during any twelve-month period for:
- the birth and care of the employee’s newborn child;
- the placement of a child with the employee through adoption or foster care;
- to care for the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent with a serious health condition; or
- to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.
The FMLA further provides that:
- an employer must maintain the employee’s existing level of coverage under a group health plan while the employee is on FMLA leave as if the employee had not taken leave;
- after FMLA leave, the employer must restore the employee to the employee’s original job or to an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment;
- spouses employed by the same employer are not entitled to more than 12 weeks of family leave between them for the birth and care of a healthy newborn child, placement of a healthy child for adoption or foster care, or to care for a parent who has a serious health condition; and
- an employer may not interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of any right provided by FMLA; nor may it discriminate against any individual for opposing any practice prohibited by the FMLA, or being involved in any FMLA related proceeding.
Finally, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) provides new mothers in the workplace with “reasonable break time” for breastfeeding employees to express breast milk until the child’s first birthday. Under the ACA, employers must provide a private place, other than a bathroom, for this purpose.
When to Contact an Employment Lawyer About Pregnancy Discrimination
If you have experienced some form of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, it’s imperative that you take action immediately. Because of the complicated administrative process, short filing deadlines, and maze of employment laws that might apply to your case, victims of pregnancy discrimination should contact the Wagoner Law Firm without delay for a free case evaluation.