Pregnant Employees Rights at Work

Having a child should be a wonderful event in your life. Unfortunately, some employers view pregnancy as an economic inconvenience for their business. To curb pregnancy related discrimination, several states have passed laws relating to the treatment of women before and after their pregnancy. Even if your state has not yet enacted these types of protections, you can still benefit from federal laws which prohibit discriminatory practices against women who are pregnant. These laws generally fall into two categories: (1) prohibitions against adverse employment actions and (2) rules covering pregnancy-related leave.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) protects pregnant employees from adverse employment actions. The PDA amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to recognize discrimination based on pregnancy as a form of sex discrimination. Because of this expanded protection, employers are now required to treat women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions in the same manner as other applicants or employees with temporary disabilities. Specifically, employers may not refuse to hire a woman because she is pregnant. They cannot fire a woman or take away benefits or accrued seniority because she decides to take maternity leave. These protections also apply to both married and single women who are having a baby. Generally, an employer must treat pregnant women the same as other workers who cannot perform their jobs for short periods of time. Thus, if an employer allows employees to take leave for a broken leg or short-term illness, the employer must allow pregnant women to take leave under the same terms and conditions.

The PDA only provides protection from discrimination. The PDA does not require employers to offer health insurance or disability benefits, or to adopt such plans, when they do not do the same for other employees. If your employer does not offer insurance to any employees, the employer will not be required to obtain insurance for you when you become pregnant. The Act covers both federal and non-federal employers with fifteen or more employees. Because of this limitation, the PDA actually leaves many female workers unprotected by the act.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covers pregnancy-related leave. The Act allows qualified employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to attend to family matters. A pregnant employee is eligible for FMLA leave if she:

    • Has worked for the employer for at least 12 months (not necessarily consecutively),
    • Has worked for the employer for at least 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months, and
    • Works at or is assigned to a worksite that has 50 or more employees or which is within 75 miles of employer worksites that taken together have a total of 50 or more employees (all full-time government employees are covered regardless of the number of employees at a particular agency, school, or other public facility).

Under FMLA, when an employee returns from leave, the employee is entitled to be restored to the same job the employee left when the leave began. If the same job is not available, the employer must place the employee in an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, duties, and responsibilities. Under the Act, employers are prohibited from discriminating against or interfering with employees who take family related leaves.

If you are considering taking this type of leave, contact your human resources department to complete the appropriate forms to apply for an approved leave. If you do not give your employer notice, (i.e. you just quit showing up), you will not be able to take advantage of the leave afforded by FMLA. Instead, your employer could terminate your employment because you essentially abandoned your job without notice.

If an employer has violated any provisions of either the PDA or FMLA, you may be entitled to recover:

  • Reinstatement, compelled hiring, or compelled promotion
  • Back pay (lost wages, salary, employment benefits, or other compensation due to the violation)
  • Front pay (lost wages, salary, benefits, or other compensation in the future due to the violation)
  • Retroactive seniority and benefits
  • Compensatory and punitive damages (punitive damages not available against government employers for PDA violations and not available at all for FMLA violations)
  • Attorneys’ fees and related court costs

In addition to the PDA and the FMLA, you may also qualify for protection under limited circumstances with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may apply to pregnancy rights in the workplace. Consult an employment law attorney to see which provisions are applicable to your specific situation.

More states have enacted laws to protect pregnant workers. Some will provide the same type of protection, while others have actually expanded protection to include short-term disability payments to women who take off work due to pregnancy. Some states will post their policies regarding discrimination on their state web-sites. However, for a more specific review of how those laws will apply to your situation, contact an employment law attorney in your state for a complete consultation.