Every year thousands of women file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) because they were fired, harassed or discriminated against by their employers due to pregnancy. It’s not legal to fire, harass or discriminate against women because of a pregnancy, but it does happen. That’s why it’s important to know your rights.
The rights of pregnant workers are guaranteed by several federal, state and local laws, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which covers pregnancy discrimination, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects employees with temporary disabilities.
Passed in 1978, the PDA is 40 years old, but women still face pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. In a 2018 case, a pregnant Whitney Tomlinson filed for discrimination against her employer. Tomlinson was working as a packer at a distribution center when her doctor suggested that she avoid heavy lifting for the rest of her pregnancy. Fellow employees with disabilities had received similar temporary exemptions from heavy lifting, so Tomlinson was surprised when her employer called her a liability and fired her. Tomlinson filed a complaint with the EEOC and her case is currently under investigation. Her employer was previously found liable in another discrimination case involving pregnancy, with that case ending in a settlement.
A woman does not actually have to be pregnant to be protected as the legislation covers women who were pregnant, could become or intend to become pregnant, have a medical condition related to a pregnancy, had an abortion or are thinking of having one.
Rather than fire or harass pregnant women, the ADA expects employers to make reasonable accommodations for worker safety during pregnancy, if the employee has supplied a doctor’s note, asking for accommodations. An accommodation can be as simple as taking more rest breaks or sitting for part of the day instead of standing all day. If making suitable accommodations is not practical or feasible, an employer should offer the pregnant worker comparable employment.
These legal rights apply to more than keeping an existing job. A pregnant woman who feels she has been rejected for a job, lost a promotion because of pregnancy, has been given lesser assignments or was forced to take leave, can file a complaint.
Aside from the PDA and ADA, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees unpaid leave and some health benefit protection to employees who have worked for their employer at least for a year, if the company has more than 50 employees. Other restrictions also apply.
Here’s what you need to do if you feel you are discriminated against while working.
- Read up on your rights. According to the PDA and ADA, your employer cannot fire you or discriminate against you after learning you are pregnant. You cannot legally be denied a promotion or job because of pregnancy.
- If you need a workplace accommodation to continue working safely during your pregnancy, talk to your supervisor or your human resources department.
- If your employer requests a letter from your physician, stating the necessary accommodations, it is in your interest to provide it.
- If you feel that you were unjustly fired, harassed or discriminated against because of your pregnancy, file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. You can file a complaint at any of their offices or online. Don’t wait too long to file since complaints must be filed within 180 days of the alleged incident.
- If you can’t work at all while you are pregnant, due to a medical condition, and your company qualifies under the FMLA, you may be eligible for leave. One example of a condition that might force a woman to stop working during a pregnancy, is preeclampsia, which requires bed rest.
- Not ready to go back to work? Under the FMLA, new parents, including foster and adoptive parents may be eligible for 12 weeks of accrued paid or unpaid maternity leave from companies that qualify.
- Ready to return to work and still nursing? Nursing mothers have rights too. They can take breaks to express milk in the workplace because of the Fair Labor Standards Act enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. For more information visit the DOL site or call 202-693-0051 or 1-866-487-9243 (voice), 202-693-7755 (TTY).