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If You’re Pregnant and Working, Know Your Rights

  • Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act more than 40 years ago to protect pregnant women at work. Employers were prohibited from considering pregnancy when making hiring, firing, or promotion decisions. It provides pregnant women with the same protections and accommodations as those with other types of disabilities or health issues — people who are “similar” in their ability to work.Even decades later, discrimination against pregnant women persists. Dina Bakst (co-director of A Better Balance) said that it is still a problem. This national organization promotes policies that protect workers juggling family and caregiving responsibilities.Pregnancy discrimination claims filed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have soared over two decades. Tens of thousands have filed legal actions alleging that they were subject to pregnancy discrimination at AT&T, Walmart and Merck, Whole Foods and 21st Century Fox. Planned Parenthood, and other organizations created for women, is also an indicator of the widespread nature of the problem.

    Many women don’t understand their rights, or don’t know where to find them, especially when it comes to a pregnant timeline. Some states and municipalities have added laws to protect pregnant workers. A woman looking for information about her rights as an employee of a company must navigate the confusing web of federal and state laws. Advocates for women claim that in some states, the public discussion around new laws has helped clarify employers’ requirements and resulted in a decrease of discrimination claims. Women who are better informed about their rights will be more open to discrimination. Yet, biases against pregnant women at work are often not to be taken lightly.


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    Gillian Thomas, a lawyer for the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, stated that “a lot of employers are openly about their biases.” “They’ll tell you, ‘I cannot afford to have your home. It’s our busiest season of the year.’ According to a Center for WorkLife Law report, low-wage workers are more likely than high-wage workers to be fired immediately after they tell employers that they are pregnant. This advocacy and research organization is based in the United States. More subtle forms of discrimination are often faced by professional women: They might be denied research or plum assignments, or taken off the partner track, or the path to tenure.

    Pregnancy discrimination can strike at a crucial moment in a woman’s career, during a major life change. It is the first salvo in what could become a torrent of discrimination regarding parental leave, breastfeeding, and child care. According to a Census Bureau 2017 paper, the gap in pay between heterosexual spouses increases dramatically in the year preceding the birth of the first baby and continues to increase over the five years. The discriminatory experiences of a woman during pregnancy, or her goodwill and support, can have an impact on her decision-making regarding whether she wants to quit, change jobs, or reduce her hours.

    I interviewed two lawyers for this guide: a human resource consultant and a researcher at an academic centre on employment law. The director of a non-profit that advocates for family-friendly workplace policies was also consulted.

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    What to Do

    • Know your federal rights.
    • Know your local rights.
    • Think about the accommodations you require.
    • You might consider advocating for yourself, or looking for an advocate.
    • Things are changing.

    Know your federal rights.

    Employers with 15 or more employees are prohibited from discriminating against pregnant employees. This includes hiring, firing and job assignments. Training and benefits like leave, health insurance, and leave.


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    For example, a supervisor can’t stop a pregnant woman traveling to a conference because she is concerned about her health. A manager can’t deny a pregnant worker promotion, assuming she is less committed to her job. A supervisor can’t temporarily assign a pregnant worker a job that is less desirable because of alleged concerns. This is illegal.

    Employers are not required to provide accommodation for pregnant workers if they do not offer similar accommodations to other workers (e.g., someone with a heart condition). The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations that allow employees to perform their job. However, the specifics of what this accommodation is — such as more frequent breaks or a stool to rest on — vary depending on the job and nature of the disability. Pregnant workers may not be able to receive the accommodations she requested, but both the employer and employee are expected to use the accommodation in a reasonable manner.

    Federal legislators proposed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to create a new anti-discrimination law for pregnant workers. This would make employers accountable for providing suitable care. Similar legislation has been introduced each year since 2012, but it has not received a hearing in Congress. The legislation proposed would give employers a new right to provide accommodation for pregnant women. This is in addition to requiring accommodation only if the other employee is receiving it.

    The Family and Medical Leave Act is another law that requires employers to provide unpaid leave for workers with temporary disabilities. This applies only to employers with 50 or more employees. Employees must also have worked at least 1 year and at most 1,250 hours in the past 12 months. Nearly 40% of American workers are not subject to these requirements.

    Know your local rights.

    At least 25 states and five cities have passed laws that require employers to offer reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees as of May 2019. However, confusion can occur when federal, state, and local laws offer different protections. Multiple human rights laws and family leaves laws can be used to cover health problems that arise from a difficult pregnancy. A Better Balance offers a searchable database that includes all laws in each state. Workers can also call the helpline at 1-833-NEEDABBB or 415-703-876 for the Center for WorkLife Law.

    Think about the accommodations you require.

    Sometimes, the solution is simple and obvious. You might require more complicated changes or a different job assignment.

    The University of California Hastings College of Law publishes a list of common accommodations for common medical problems during pregnancy. If you have special medical requirements or restrictions, a physician’s note in clear medical language should be submitted. Here’s a list of states that can be used to guide doctors in writing this note. )


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    Lyndi Trischler was an officer in Florence, Ky. when she became pregnant with her second baby. Many aspects of her job became difficult due to the pregnancy, starting with her uniform. Her body began to change, so her gun belt became uncomfortable and her bulletproof vest caused her heart palpitations and breathing problems. Trischler, who was 26 weeks pregnant, was denied a desk assignment. She recalled that she couldn’t physically do the job anymore after being denied. I was concerned about my safety, the safety of my coworkers, and my baby’s safety. The Department of Justice settled her discrimination case with the city and brought about a policy shift.

    Different accommodations may be required for women working in offices. According to a discrimination class action lawsuit filed by her lawyers against Jones Day in California, Nilab Rahyar Tolton was a rising star in an office of Jones Day. It is one of the largest law firms worldwide. Tolton was pregnant with her second baby when she was given high-pressure cases that required overnight travel and air travel. Her doctor gave her a note stating that she should reduce her workload. A partner in the firm criticised her for not working hard enough, and accused her lying about her medical limitations. She was then told to look for another job after her parental leave.

    Women who are pregnant and trying to please their employers may suffer serious health consequences.

    You might consider advocating for yourself, or looking for an advocate.

    Suppose you believe you’re being discriminated against. A Better Balance and Center for WorkLife Law, which can help you advocate for yourself and write letters to your employers, can connect you with lawyers, usually for a small fee but sometimes on contingency. A lot of states have women’s legal centers. If your income is low, a society for legal aid may be able help.

    Takiyah Woods worked as a family services worker in New Jersey. Her job required her to sometimes lift children under state custody due to neglect or abuse. Her doctor forbade her from lifting during her high-risk pregnancies. At first, her supervisor assigned her to cases with older children. Then, a human resources manager advised her that she needed to go on unpaid leave. Woods stated that she felt “devastated and angry”. Woods said that her doctor informed her of a new state law to protect pregnant workers. However, Woods’ employer refused to budge. A Better Balance sent her a letter outlining the obligations of the employer under the law. The employer offered her a lighter-duty, higher-paying job after a few weeks. She stated that women must do their research and there are people who can assist them. Advocates say that employers concede as often as they resist change.

    Things are changing.

    We are currently experiencing a cultural shift in how we view pregnancy treatment at work. Over 80 percent of women have a child during their working years. And more are working longer hours. Bakst, of A Better Balance, stated that the law is just one step. She said that women need to understand their rights and feel they can use the law to make it meaningful. Workplaces will continue to evolve as women speak out.

    Women are sharing their stories in the #MeToo age. One woman wrote on Twitter, “After announcing my pregnancy, was transferred within the office to a less challenging job.” Another wrote, “Worked in a small Florida business that fired two receptionists because they were pregnant.” “So gross.” Advocates believe that sharing stories, naming and shameing can shift public debate. However, they warn that publicizing the wrong details could impact future legal claims.


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    Employers must have family-friendly policies in order to retain and attract talent. Employers can now cover accommodation and leave for pregnant employees as well as for their spouses, children or for managing their medical or personal problems. Employers can cross-train their employees to do other jobs and include contingency plans for absentees in everyone’s job descriptions. Additionally, they can add floater roles to the staff, according to Cynthia Thomas Calvert. She is a senior adviser at the Center for WorkLife Law.

    Clients will tell you that they are still the same person. “I’m still the same valuable employee I was before I became pregnant. “It is shocking to see that employers are willing throw away that talent,” stated Kate Mueting. Kate Mueting is a leading plaintiff attorney on the topic of pregnancy discrimination.


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