I have a problem pregnancy. Am I protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

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Most pregnancies are covered by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). These two laws protect employees from discrimination based on pregnancy and lay the ground rules for taking leave for the birth of a child. However, when a pregnancy is threatened or comes with serious complications, legal rights are more difficult to determine. In some cases, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may be an option.

Pregnancy Leave and the FMLA and PDA

Under the FMLA and PDA employers must treat a pregnant woman like any other employee with a temporary disability. This includes accommodations for changes in physical condition and providing leave for medical appointments, childbirth and care for a newborn. Although the law considers a normal pregnancy a temporary disability, a woman can still be disciplined or terminated for excessive absences or for not performing her job duties.

When a pregnancy is a problem pregnancy, the woman may be covered under the ADA. In opinions released from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), it's said that when a pregnant woman is experiencing substantial complications that interfere with major life activity, the pregnancy may qualify as a disability under the ADA. Whether the act protects an employee from absences related to a complicated pregnancy depends on the severity of said complications. Being placed on bed rest, for example, may not be enough. Because there is no definition related to this issue in the statute itself and the Commission’s opinion does not bind the courts, the decision about whether the ADA applies to problem pregnancies is up to a judge.

Courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

A 7th Circuit Court ruled that the ADA does not apply. A healthcare worker experienced serious complications with her pregnancy and was placed on two weeks bed rest. At the end of the rest period, her doctor allowed her to return to work but be placed on light duty. Since light duty was not allowed for any employee, the accommodation could not be made. She was terminated. The court ruled that the need to control premature labor met the definition of a “physiological condition” under the ADA. The court also said that because pregnancy is by nature temporary, the complication does not interfere with major life activity. The court did not consider it a temporary disability.

Later, the EEOC filed suit against a homebuilder for denying a woman additional unpaid leave after she was put on bed rest for seven months of an extremely risky pregnancy. The reason for the success of this suit is Congress expanded the definition of major life activities to include more routine tasks, such as “caring for oneself.” However, it is still unclear whether the ADA is meant to cover all types of temporary disabilities in all circumstances. It seems that the measure is based on the severity of the complications and how long a pregnant woman is unable to perform basic duties.

Getting Help

Because discrimination laws can be complicated, it is best to consult a labor attorney before filing any claims. A labor attorney can review the law with you and advise you on the best course of action for your individual case.

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