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Everything You Need to Know About Pregnancy Rights in the Workplace

Discovering that you are pregnant can be an exciting time in your life. After all, you are about to welcome a little bundle of joy into the world. Sure, there are some anxieties and stresses about something as life-changing as having a child. If you are a working mother-to-be, the stress and anxiety can be even greater.

Questions run through your mind about how to tell your boss and your coworkers. You wonder if they will share in your excitement or feel resentful and burdened by your changing needs. In addition, you will have questions about how to plan your maternity leave as well as answer the uncomfortable questions. The good thing is, you have nine months to get things in place. 

Before you run to the office to share your good news, take some time to learn about what your rights are as a pregnant employee. This initial research will be particularly beneficial, especially if you end up needing extra accommodations or time off for appointments or complications. Here is an overview of everything you need to know about your rights in the workplace as a pregnant employee.

Definition

Overall, pregnancy discrimination is a type of discrimination that occurs when a pregnant woman is fired or treated unfairly in some way because she is pregnant or planning to become pregnant.

In fact, it is not uncommon for pregnant women to be sidelined at the workplace simply because they are expecting a baby. They are passed over for promotions and raises and even fired when they announce that they are pregnant or complain about how they are being treated because they are pregnant.

Even though many companies in the United States have worked really hard to appear more welcoming to women, some are still engaging in discrimination. It does not matter where a woman works—she could work at a convenience store or work on Wall Street—getting pregnant may be the moment in her career in which employers no longer take her seriously.

Pregnancy discrimination starts from the moment she first starts to show and continues while her children are young. One reason employers are so ruthless with pregnant and new mothers is that they tend to believe that these women are less committed.

Some reports indicate that each child a woman has reduces her hourly wages by four percent. Meanwhile, reports have found that men's average earnings are boosted by six percent when they become fathers.

Of course, there are moms who want to stay home once they have a child. There are other moms who have to drop out of the workforce due to the lack of affordable childcare. But for the women who want to keep working in their fields, research shows that getting pregnant often leads to discrimination as well as major setbacks for their careers.

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Types of Discrimination

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), thousands of women file complaints of pregnancy discrimination each year in the United States and many more cases likely go unreported.

Although there are a number of ways an expectant mother can be discriminated against, the following are the most common ways employers are guilty of pregnancy discrimination:

  • Refusing to hire someone who is pregnant
  • Treating a pregnant employee differently than temporarily disabled employees
  • Requiring a pregnant employee to continue doing things that put her at risk
  • Failing to offer a pregnant woman the same (or similar) job when she returns from maternity leave
  • Demoting, laying off, or firing a pregnant employee for no valid reason
  • Docking or writing up a pregnant employee for taking time off to visit a doctor for prenatal care
  • Requiring a pregnant employee to take leave just because she is pregnant
  • Holding back benefits because the pregnant woman is not married

What the Law Says

Expectant mothers are protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act prohibits employers with at least 15 employees from sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.

In fact, according to the EEOC, an employer "may not treat a pregnant worker who is temporarily unable to perform some of her job duties because of pregnancy less favorably than workers whose job performance is similarly restricted because of conditions other than pregnancy."

Under the law, what this means is that pregnancy is treated the same as a temporary disability, even though it is not a disability at all.

Employers are required to give pregnant employees the same treatment and benefits that it gives to employees with temporary disabilities.

This includes getting time off for severe morning sickness, doctor-ordered bed rest, childbirth, recovery from C-section, and any other condition related to the pregnancy. Likewise, if temporarily disabled employees are not entitled to leave or benefits, then neither are pregnant women unless they are entitled to leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). 

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For instance, depending on the size of the company, pregnant employees receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for the birth and care of the child, placement of a child for adoption or foster care, or care of a child with a serious health condition under FMLA. (FMLA applies to companies with 50 or more employees.)

Even though pregnancy is not a true disability, pregnant workers often are limited by their condition due to back pain, risk of injury, or morning sickness. Therefore, a pregnant woman may also receive some protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Even though smaller employers are not required to offer pregnancy or other disability leave under Title VII or FMLA, they may be required to do so by state law. For instance, California has a specific pregnancy protection law that requires employers with five or more employees to provide up to four months of job-related disability leave for a woman who is pregnant. And if the organization provides more than four months of leave for other types of temporary disabilities, it must provide the same amount for its pregnant employees.

The law applies to both women working full-time as well as part-time. As a result, it is important to see if your state has additional laws in place that protect pregnant women. 

To further protect pregnant women in the workforce, a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) was introduced to Congress in 2017. Under the Act, employers are prohibited from forcing pregnant workers to take a leave.

The law also makes it clear that an employer cannot discriminate against a pregnant worker because she needs or has asked for accommodation. Modeled after the ADA, the PWFA would address the lack of protection for women in the workforce with pregnancy-related limitations.

What to Do

If you believe you have been discriminated against in your workplace by your employer, the first thing you need to be able to prove is that a temporarily disabled employee was treated differently or more favorably than you.

In other words, if someone in your workplace had a heart attack and was granted time off as well as less strenuous work situations, then you also should receive the same accommodations for your pregnancy. There are, however, some steps you will need to take to prove your case:

  • Keep a record of the details. Be as thorough as possible, which means recording dates, times, places and witnesses. Keep a copy of your notes at home. This information is important if you decide to file a complaint.
  • Talk to a representative. If you are in a union, you want to talk with your representative. If you have hired an attorney, have a discussion with him/her. If you have no money for an attorney, call a women's advocacy group or a civil rights group for input and direction.
  • Keep a record of your work. It is important that you continue to work hard at the office and do a good job. Keep copies of your evaluations as well as any letters or memos that show that you are good at what you do. Remember, supervisors may defend their discrimination by indicating that you are not doing a good job at work.
  • Build a support network. Going through a discrimination case while you are pregnant is a stressful situation. Be sure you surround yourself with supportive friends and family members. You will need people to talk with who are empathetic. They can also be helpful with discussing ideas.
  • Take time for yourself. Having a healthy pregnancy requires that you minimize stress, eat healthily, and get plenty of rest. Do not let a discrimination case derail your pregnancy. Be sure you are still caring for yourself and your unborn baby. No job is worth jeopardizing your health.

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Once you can prove that you have been treated differently than another temporarily disabled employee, you can contact the EEOC to file a complaint. This group is the agency of the federal government responsible for investigating charges of job discrimination related to pregnancy in companies with 15 or more employees. If your company violated state law regarding companies with fewer than 15 employees, then you would contact the state agency within your state to file a complaint. 

If your company has 50 or more employees, then the Department of Labor is the entity that you should contact. They investigate family and medical leave discrimination in workplaces with more than 50 employees.

Remember, anti-discrimination laws generally give you a limited amount of time to file a complaint, so do not delay. Typically, you have 180 days from the day the discrimination took place to file a charge. Meanwhile, federal employees have 45 days to contact an EEOC counselor.

If it is found that you have been a victim of discrimination related to your pregnancy, you may be able to recover any pay you lost, get your job back if you were fired, or get the promotion you were denied. Other remedies might include compensatory damages for pain and suffering as well as punitive damages that punish the employer for discriminating against you. Sometimes victims are even awarded attorneys' fees and court costs.

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Telling Your Employer

When you think about sharing the good news with your employer that you are expecting, the last thing you are probably thinking about is being discriminated against. However, the sad truth is that many women are treated poorly and sometimes even fired or laid off after revealing that they are pregnant. 

For this reason, you may want to wait to tell your employer you are pregnant. Just be sure that you don't share the good news with everyone but your supervisors. You don't want them to find out from someone other than you. When you do decide to share the good news, you want to be sure that you stress to them that you are still committed to your job. Even offering some ideas on how you will manage your workload can give your employer some peace of mind. Additionally, you want to reassure your co-workers that you aren't going to leave all of your work to them.

Being prepared when you announce the good news—and reassuring everyone that you are still the same person with the same passion for your job—can go a long way in making the transition and acceptance of your pregnancy much easier for your employers and your co-workers. 

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to pregnancy in the workplace, it is important that you know your rights. This way, if your employer responds unfavorably to your good news, you are prepared. While no one wants to think that their employer would ever do anything unethical or discriminate against them, it is always possible. The best way to handle the potential situation is to stay alert to any signs of pregnancy discrimination, surround yourself with supportive resources, and use your best judgment.

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