Is It Illegal to Lay Off Pregnant Employees in California?

McKenzie was at home, washing baby bottles for her newborn, when she got the news that her position as a communications professional at Salesforce had been eliminated.

She was shocked — although the company had announced in early 2023 that 10% of the workforce would be laid off, McKenzie thought that she’d be legally protected from termination by her maternity leave. 

She’s not entirely wrong: pregnant workers are entitled to specific protections and benefits under federal and state law that shield them from discriminatory demotion or firing due to their condition. But did that apply to layoffs? 

As waves of downsizing have rocked tech, media, and other industries over the past year, many employees who are on leave due to pregnancy or other health conditions have been asking similar questions.

Many of these workers who were surprised with sudden job loss might understandably be wondering if they’ve been fired illegally — and if so, if they have grounds to file a lawsuit for wrongful termination or discrimination.

This blog post will shed some light on what’s legal and not legal when it comes to laying off workers — pregnant or otherwise.

We’ll first walk through the national and California state laws that protect pregnant women from discrimination in the workplace.

We will then break down some circumstances that do (and don’t) fit the legal requirements for wrongful termination, and finally explain how an employment lawyer can help you win recovery for a potentially illegal firing.

What Protections Do Pregnant Workers Have in California?

First, make no mistake: discriminating against a worker because she is — or may become — pregnant is illegal across the U.S. 

The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) specifically guarantees pregnant employees the right to fair and continued employment during and after their pregnancies.

Under this act, companies are banned from holding a worker’s pregnancy status against her in employment situations — for instance, by withholding hiring, firing, or demoting someone specifically because she’s pregnant. 

Beyond the national Pregnancy Discrimination Act, though, women working in California enjoy even further protections thanks to state anti-discrimination laws. 

For one, all employers with five or more employees must follow the anti-discrimination regulations laid out in California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

FEHA makes it illegal for employers to discriminate in hiring, promotion, pay, or opportunities due to any condition related to pregnancy, including discriminatory treatment based on fertility-related health issues or treatments, birth control use, breastfeeding or pumping, and treatment related to the loss of pregnancy.

Under FEHA, employers are also required to grant any reasonable requests a pregnant employee might make for accommodations that would allow her to perform her job as normally as possible.

These accommodations can include alterations to work duties to make them less strenuous, access to a chair or ergonomic supports at work, permission for longer and more frequent breaks, or time and space to express milk while at work. 

Women in California are also legally entitled to up to four months of additional job-protected leave, or Pregnancy Disability Leave, for medical conditions related to pregnancy.

With a doctor’s certification, women experiencing a number of common medical conditions — like hypertension, preeclampsia, severe morning sickness, or depression — are able to take more time to recover, with the guarantee that their same (or a reasonably equivalent) job will be waiting for them when they return.

If an employer refuses to cooperate with these regulations — by refusing requests for breaks, denying you leave time, docking your pay after maternity leave, or firing you for announcing a pregnancy, as a few examples — they’re violating the law. When this happens, employees can sue for illegal pregnancy discrimination, with the potential to win financial recovery for lost wages and opportunities.

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Can I Sue for Wrongful Termination if I Was Fired While Pregnant or on Maternity Leave?

Although women in California are entitled to many legal protections that prevent them from discriminatory treatment while pregnant, this doesn’t mean that it’s always illegal when a pregnant woman loses her job. 

Under U.S. and California law, it’s still possible for a company to fire a pregnant worker without it being pregnancy discrimination or wrongful termination

To explain why, let’s clear up a common legal misconception: Unfair termination is not always wrongful termination. Under California and U.S. law, wrongful termination happens when an employer fires someone for reasons that are illegal. In essence, they violate existing state or federal laws. This, of course, includes laws against discriminatory harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

However, when a pregnant employee is let go for reasons that are not specifically discriminatory against her pregnancy status (or in violation of any other standing law), she wouldn’t have a legitimate legal claim to a wrongful termination lawsuit.

So, even if a worker is on job-protected pregnancy or maternity leave, there’s no legal reason for her to be shielded from company layoffs. Although laying off workers on pregnancy or medical leave may seem ethically wrong, it’s not necessarily legally wrong. 

Be aware, though, layoffs can still be used in discriminatory ways. For example, when the targets of a round of layoffs are only workers who are on pregnancy or family/medical leave, that could be the sign that something unlawful is happening. 

How Do I Know if I’ve Been Fired Illegally?

Although the situations that make a firing wrongful termination lawsuit are narrower than many employees think, they do still happen. 

Being fired for discriminatory reasons — reasons based on your membership in a “protected class” — is unfortunately still a frequent cause of wrongful termination suits in California.

State civil rights law protects employees from discriminatory firing based on a variety of personal characteristics, including (but not limited to) race, religion, veteran status, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Some California cities also include additional protected classes. For instance, in San Francisco, it’s also illegal for employers to discriminate based on a worker’s height and weight.

Additionally, employers who fire employees as punishment for exercising their legal rights is also a form of wrongful termination. This is known as employer retaliation, and it’s specifically banned under California law. Your firing could be a case of illegal retaliation if it was motivated by your:

  • Report of labor code violations, workplace wrongdoing, or any other whistleblowing to internal or external authorities.
  • Request for accommodations based on a medical condition or disability (including pregnancy).
  • Complaint of sexual or other discriminatory harassment.

If you suspect that you’ve been fired under illegal circumstances, it’s critical to get in touch with an employment attorney as soon as you can.

An experienced lawyer trained in California labor law can assess your situation and advise you on your options for seeking justice. If you do bring a lawsuit, an employment attorney can advocate for you in court and support you throughout the process. 

Author Photo

Robert Ottinger, Esq.

Robert Ottinger is an employment attorney who focuses on representing executives and employees in employment disputes. Before starting his firm, Robert slugged it out in courtrooms trying cases for the government. Robert served as a Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles and then as Assistant Attorney General for the New York Attorney General’s Office in Manhattan.

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