Pregnancy discrimination is defined as treating a woman unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions. If a pregnant woman is denied benefits or accommodations, gets fired, doesn’t get a promotion, or is not hired for a job, there may be a case of pregnancy discrimination.
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The laws that protect pregnant women
Several laws play part in regulating pregnancy discrimination at the workplace.
First of all, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) (which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). The act specifically states that discrimination based on pregnancy is to be considered a form of gender discrimination.
The PDA considers pregnancy as a temporary disability only if a woman is unable to perform her duties because of her pregnancy or childbirth. As such, pregnant women must be treated the same as other temporarily injured, disabled, or sick employees, indiscriminately giving them all the benefits that any other temporarily disabled worker would receive, including reasonable accommodations. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is applicable in such cases.
Furthermore, “related conditions” that arise because of a pregnancy are also considered as temporary disabilities. Common examples of conditions that may arise when a woman is expecting are:
- severe morning sickness
- bed rest ordered by a physician
- gestational diabetes
- recovery from childbirth
- lactation and breastfeeding
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) grants new parents 12 weeks of leave to care for the new child, if certain conditions with regard to the length of employment and the employer itself are met.
Some states have also enacted state laws that protect pregnant woman in a stricter manner, than the federal level PDA.
As you can see from the above, pregnancy discrimination can violate a number of laws:
- The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
- The Americans with Disabilities Act
- The Family and Medical Leave Act
- local state laws
The particular circumstances of each case will determine which laws were broken.
Critical interpretation of the law
It’s important to realize that federal law does not give pregnant woman any special rights at all. It merely says that pregnant woman cannot be treated differently than other employees.
This has actually been a topic of critique, since courts have generally upheld the notion that since men cannot be pregnant, treating woman differently because of pregnancy would discriminate against men. Woman are not allowed preferential treatment due to a normal pregnancy.
Here are a few cases detailing what you would hold pregnancy discrimination, but the court ruling otherwise: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pregnancy_Discrimination_Act#Other_Important_Cases
As previously stated, some states have state level laws that provide more benefits to pregnant women.
Proving pregnancy discrimination
The key to proving pregnancy discrimination is being able to show that a pregnant woman was treated differently than other employees in a similar situation, and that the state of pregnancy was the cause of the differential treatment.
Because of at-will employment in the US, proving pregnancy discrimination is not as straight forward as one would think.
Direct evidence of pregnancy discrimination
Direct evidence of discrimination is where the employer actually admits to discriminating because of pregnancy. This is very rare.
The employer would effectively need to state something along the lines of, “I would promote you to regional manager, but since you’re pregnant, you won’t be able to fly soon, and after you give birth, you’ll want to spend more time with your family. So instead, I’m promoting someone else.”
Pregnancy discrimination may also happen during job interviews. An example would be when an employer reacts by saying, “We can’t hire you because you’re pregnant” after meeting a pregnant job applicant.
Circumstantial (indirect) evidence of pregnancy discrimination
Employers are careful with their words when it comes to such issues, so they usually don’t admit to discrimination due to pregnancy. In such a case, circumstantial evidence needs to be presented, enough to allow the arbitrator/judge to infer pregnancy discrimination.
For example, circumstantial evidence might consist of proving that the employer:
- has a history of treating pregnant woman differently (for example, no pregnant woman makes it to the 3rd trimester without getting fired)
- acted differently than its usual policies would suggest (for example, discharging the pregnant woman without written notices, even though that is company norm)
- shortly after learning of the pregnancy, reacted in a way that showed that the pregnant woman fell out of favor, or started getting unfavorable treatment (for example, hiring someone else for a position that the woman was promised)
- discharges women after returning from leave for pregnancy related medical conditions
- harasses pregnant women at the workplace
Proving a case based on circumstantial evidence requires as much solid evidence as possible. It’s smart to take notes and document any changes in employer behavior that shows any bias. Keep detailed records of events, including the timeline of events, emails, memos, and conversations.
Pregnancy discrimination cases and settlements
If a pregnant woman is wrongfully terminated or is not reasonably accommodated if she has related medial conditions, the case may be reported to the EEOC and even go to court. Here are a few examples of pregnancy discrimination cases:
- A pregnant woman working for the UPS was denied her request for the 20 pound lifting restriction, that other employees with similar disabilities were approved. The normal requirement for UPS drivers is the ability to lift 70 pounds. UPS refused to accommodate the pregnant woman’s condition even though others with similar disabilities were accommodated, and thereby intentionally discriminated against her. (Source)
- By filing under the New York Human Rights Act, 3 ex-employees were awarded $6,200,000 in damages. The 3 women all claimed that their former employer, GEB Medical Management Inc. discriminated against them, after their supervisor learned that they were pregnant. The extraordinary settlement amount is due to the fact that the women did not file the claim under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which would have capped damages at $500,000, but the a human rights act. (Source)
- A staff attorney working for Memphis Light, Gas and Water was awarded $92,000. after proving that her employer failed to accommodate her pregnancy related medical conditions properly. She had a high risk pregnancy and asked to work remotely. Her request was denied, even though she was already working remotely during her hospital stay. After returning to work following the birth of her child, some of her work assignments were taken away, and she received negative performance reviews which were based on lies. She was never given an opportunity to discuss the reviews with her supervisors. She sued for pregnancy discrimination, retaliation, and non-accommodation. The court only agreed with the non-accommodation accusation, the other two claims were dismissed. (Source)
Generally, pregnancy discrimination cases have lower settlements. The EEOC website has descriptions of more pregnancy discrimination cases here.
How to start a pregnancy discrimination claim?
If you believe you have been discriminated against because of your pregnancy and could not resolve it with your employer, please read our guidelines on how to file a discrimination claim.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the government body that makes sure that protected groups, such as pregnant women, are not discriminated against.