What Protections Do Pregnant Office Workers Have in California?

Although women have been an important part of the U.S. workforce for decades, many employers unfortunately still have doubts about their capacity to serve as both professionals and mothers. 

The outdated, prejudicial beliefs that pregnant women and working moms are a liability, less committed to their jobs, or unable to perform at top levels professionally, pervades California workplaces — regardless of industry or job level. 

In April 2018, a group of female associates sued their LA law firm, claiming that their former employer had cut them off from substantial work and opportunities for advancement once they became pregnant. 

For working women who are not legal experts, however, recognizing pregnancy discrimination in a professional setting can be challenging. Pregnancy discrimination in the office is often subtle, casual, and easily overlooked — especially by managers and executives with busy schedules and high expectations.

In this blog post, we’ll showcase some examples of what pregnancy discrimination can look like for professional women, explain what rights and protections pregnant workers have under California law, and outline how an employment attorney can help if you’ve faced pregnancy-related discrimination at work.

What Does Pregnancy Discrimination Look Like?

At base, pregnancy discrimination happens when an employer treats an employee adversely because she is expecting or caring for a newborn child. The actions that constitute illegal discrimination can take a variety of forms, though — some of which are more subtle than others.

Here, we’ll walk through three cases that feature some of the most common discriminatory behavior that pregnant professionals face in California.

1. Unequal pay and denied promotions.

Sherry had received rave performance reviews during her initial years at the law firm where she worked. With her record of accomplishments as an associate lawyer, she and her colleagues expected she was on the road to become a partner at the firm before too long.

But all that changed when she became pregnant. After returning from maternity leave, Sherry’s case assignments remained low, even after she requested her work return to normal.

When she saw her fellow associates getting promotions and ascending to partner while she was ignored, she knew something was wrong. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one.

A few years prior, a group of female associates had also reported that the firm had sidelined them from substantial amounts of casework after they had chosen to start families.

Fewer cases meant lower compensation and fewer opportunities to meet the performance criteria needed for promotion. The result: For these women, motherhood was effectively career sabotage.

2. Demeaning comments, exclusion, and pressure to quit. 

Tania had produced several shows for Netflix’s international content division and always received high praise from executives for her work.

She was looking forward to her next project, a highly anticipated series about a popular Mexican-American singer, when she became pregnant.

After she told Netflix that she was expecting a child, though, Tania suddenly found herself shut out of communications about the project, left off of important emails, and excluded from meetings.

Although Netflix had promised up to a year of paid maternity leave, Tania was discouraged from taking hers. Instead, her boss became increasingly dismissive, making repeated negative comments about her appearance and performance, and even pressuring her to quit her job. 

3. Harassment, retaliation, denial of accommodations, and termination.

Chelsey was a manager at Google when she became pregnant with her second child. During her first five years working as a user experience researcher, she’d been happy at the company and consistently received positive performance reviews.

But she was disturbed when, in 2018, she overheard a director criticizing a pregnant colleague. After learning that her colleague had gotten a negative performance review after informing Google of her pregnancy, Chelsey filed a complaint with HR against the director. Even though HR didn’t take any action in response, Chelsey faced backlash from the director for making the report, including threats that she’d be replaced. 

When she herself became pregnant, she asked to transfer departments to escape the continued negative treatment. But her new supervisor treated her pregnancy as an inconvenience, insisting that Chelsey keep working even after her doctor recommended medical bed rest, but still denying her the management responsibilities that came with her role.

When Chelsey was admitted to the hospital to receive treatment for a life-threatening condition related to her pregnancy, her manager warned her that her job might not be guaranteed when she returned.

Just days after recovering from an emergency C-section, Chelsey learned that she’d been terminated from her position at Google with only a minimal salary cushion offered for severance to support her and her newborn. 

The stories above outline some of the most common ways that pregnancy discrimination can appear in professional settings. Illegal discrimination on the basis of pregnancy also happens when:

  • You’re not hired because you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
  • You’re denied access to breaks to use the bathroom or rest while pregnant.
  • You’re refused requests for flexible hours or remote work due to your pregnancy.
  • Your company refuses to provide a clean, private space for you to express milk.
  • You’re demoted for becoming pregnant or expressing a desire to grow your family.
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What Rights Do Pregnant Workers Have in California?

Pregnancy discrimination is illegal across the U.S. and has been since 1978. In California, though, women enjoy even more legal protections and accommodations during pregnancy than are granted in the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act

For one, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) doesn’t limit its protections to women who are currently pregnant. FEHA also makes it illegal for employers to discriminate in hiring, promotion, pay, or opportunities due to any condition related to pregnancy. This includes discriminatory treatment based on:

  • Pregnancy- or fertility-related health issues,
  • birth control use,
  • infertility treatment, 
  • breastfeeding or pumping, 
  • childbirth, or 
  • loss of pregnancy.

So if you’re a new mom and need to take more frequent breaks for, say, lactation, your supervisor can’t use that as a justification for demoting you or docking your pay in a performance review. 

FEHA also requires California companies to provide pregnant employees with accommodations that allow them to perform their regular duties as normally as possible. Some common accommodation requests that pregnant working professionals are entitled to include:

  • Access to ergonomic office furniture.
  • Temporary alteration of responsibilities to reduce physical or mental stress.
  • Assistance with any physically demanding tasks.
  • Schedule modifications (e.g. flexible hours, remote work options).
  • Access to a private space for lactation.
  • Longer or more frequent break time (for the restroom, water, rest, or medications).
  • Leave of absence for pregnancy-related medical conditions.

Women who’ve been with their current employer for at least a year are also entitled to up to 12 weeks of parental leave in order to bond with their newborn.

In many cases, California women can also access additional job-protected leave, called Pregnancy Disability Leave.

Up to four months of this supplementary leave time is granted to women who experience a number of common medical conditions related to pregnancy, like gestational diabetes, hypertension, preeclampsia, severe morning sickness, depression, or issues surrounding the loss or end of a pregnancy. 

Experiencing further medical complications related to your pregnancy or childbirth? Then you could also be eligible for extended leave time under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).

In all of these situations, your employer is allowed to request verification of your medical conditions from a doctor — but they’re never legally allowed to ask you to disclose your specific medical records. And, when you return from leave, you’re entitled to return to the same (or reasonably comparable) position to the one you performed previously.

What Do I Do if My Company Is Discriminating Against Me for My Pregnancy?

First, know your rights. Pregnant employees have the right to reasonable accommodations that allow them to continue with their job responsibilities, as much as is safe and reasonably possible.

Your employer should never ask you to choose between your job and your health: if you take medical leave, you should expect to return to the same role that you left.

Don’t overlook retaliation. If your employer punishes you for requesting pregnancy accommodations, taking medical leave, or reporting their failure to follow any anti-discrimination laws, that could be considered illegal retaliation — another crime under state and federal law.

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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