3 Things Women Should Know about Pregnancy Discrimination at Work
Pregnancy discrimination is a pervasive problem in American workplaces. Since 2016, the number of federal pregnancy discrimination lawsuits has been increasing steadily — even with women now making up 52% of all management and professional jobs in the U.S.
In this post, we’ll take a look at what constitutes unlawful pregnancy discrimination, and what the consequences are for employers who discriminate against pregnant workers.
Also, what steps employees who’ve been discriminated against for their pregnancies can take to get legal restitution.
Can My Employer Fire Me For Becoming Pregnant?
It is illegal to fire an employee for being pregnant. U.S. law recognizes the right of pregnant job applicants and workers to fair employment and expressly prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of pregnancy status.
According to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act — Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the law includes protections not just for workers who are currently pregnant or who have recently given birth, but also protections against discrimination based on workers considering becoming pregnant, who have medical conditions related to pregnancy, or who may have terminated a pregnancy.
Also, states such as California and New York have their own powerful state and city laws that protect pregnant workers.
What Does Unlawful Pregnancy Discrimination Look Like?
Discrimination in Availability of Employment, Hours, or Benefits
Most commonly, this happens when employees are fired, demoted, or passed over for roles because they’re pregnant or have just given birth.
Employers who withhold or reduce access to hours, job assignments, pay, or promotions specifically due to a woman’s pregnancy status are also engaging in unlawful discrimination.
Making unwelcome or offensive comments, jokes, or insults motivated by a worker’s pregnancy or pregnancy-related medical condition — such as breastfeeding — is also unlawful when it creates a hostile work environment.
Employers who don’t fulfill their affirmative duty to protect their pregnant employees against such harassment are liable for this discrimination.
Retaliation for Requests for Accommodations
Pregnant workers are entitled to request certain accommodations from their employers in order to safely do their job while carrying a pregnancy to term or caring for their newborn.
Examples of these accommodations can include altered break and work schedules, additional restroom breaks, permission to sit or stand, shift changes, and the ability to work from home.
An employer who takes adverse action against you for making these requests — or for filing a formal complaint if they’re refused — is committing an illegal act of retaliation.
Pregnancy is not technically considered a disability, but the ADA offers additional protections for pregnant employees who develop certain medical conditions that could be considered disabilities under the law, as well as for workers who have caregiving responsibilities for a pregnant person with such a condition.
Also, the Family Medical Leave Act or FMLA provides workers with the right to take 90 days of job-protected leave.
Many states such as California and New York have their own laws that provide workers with the right to paid pregnancy-related leave.
What Kind of Protection is Available For Unlawful Pregnancy Discrimination?
Employees who experience workplace discrimination on the basis of pregnancy can file charges in federal or state court to seek remedies for the violation of their rights.
Potential remedies can include court-ordered injunctive relief and the payment of lost wages and compensation for emotional distress and punitive damages.
Requests for reinstatement or other court-ordered injunctive relief are possible but less common in these cases. When a pregnant worker has been illegally fired, they rarely want to return to the employer who discriminated against them.
Compensatory damages are the most common remedy for pregnancy discrimination suits. These comprise financial payments issued to a worker to make up for the losses incurred from the unlawful discrimination, including back pay from lost salary and benefits, court and attorneys’ fees, and funds for emotional distress.
Courts can also compel employers to pay punitive damages as recompense for their discrimination and as a deterrent from repeating it in the future.
In 2015, auto parts retailer AutoZone was ordered to pay a record-breaking $185 million in punitive damages resulting from a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit.
The suit was brought by Rosario Juarez, the former manager of a San Diego AutoZone store who faced harassment and demotion when she informed her supervisor that she was pregnant.
When Juarez sued for pregnancy discrimination as a result of her demotion, AutoZone fired her, falsely claiming she’d stolen money from the store.
Over the course of the trial, Juarez’s lawyers uncovered clear evidence of the company’s efforts to target and discredit the mother of two, as well as a documented history of gender discrimination within the company’s San Diego franchise.
The jury of five men and three women ultimately found overwhelmingly in favor of Juarez, issuing a substantial sum in damages believed to be the largest verdict for a single plaintiff in an employment lawsuit in U.S. history.
What Should I Do if I’ve Suffered Discrimination at My Job While Pregnant?
First of all, know your rights. An employer doesn’t have to keep you in a role that you can’t perform or which would pose a safety risk to others in the workplace while you’re pregnant.
But they also can’t deny you work or remove you from a job because of risks incurred by your pregnancy.
If your employer doesn’t offer reasonable accommodations that would allow you to work safely, or they do so only on the condition of reduced pay or benefits, they are engaging in unlawful discrimination.
Also if you are fired soon after revealing your pregnancy or requesting or returning from leave, then you may have a wrongful termination case based on pregnancy discrimination.
Then, assess the options for seeking relief that are most apt for your situation. Pregnant workers who experience discrimination — whether as reduced opportunity, harassment, withheld accommodations, or wrongful termination — can take action at both the federal and state levels to hold employers accountable for violations of their rights.
For instance, if a VP for a financial services firm is passed over for a promotion due to her stated plans to start a family, she could file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for violations of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).
However, workers at companies with fewer than 15 employees or who experienced discrimination more than half a year prior must look instead to state-level agencies to file a report.
Many states have their own specific legal protections against pregnancy discrimination, including provisions specifying the type of accommodations to which workers are entitled.
For example, New York Human Rights Law provides similar protections to the PDA but includes workers at companies with as few as four people.
Get in Contact with an Experienced Employment Lawyer Today
In all cases, having an experienced employment attorney familiar with the nuances of federal, state, and local employment law is invaluable for employees seeking restitution for pregnancy discrimination.
An employment lawyer can guide you through the process of filing discrimination charges, advise you in preparing a lawsuit, and advocate for you to receive the recovery that you deserve.