We’ve made a lot of strides in recent years regarding workplace discrimination – employers can’t treat people differently because of sex, race, national origin, or religion. But what about pregnancy discrimination? That’s what it’s called when an employer fires you, demotes you, reduces your hours, or otherwise changes the terms of your employment because of a pregnancy. It’s illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but what does that mean for actual pregnant women in the workplace? These are the highlights:
- Pregnancy discrimination is illegal under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
- Those laws cover organizations with 15 or more employees, employment agencies, labor unions, and governments
- Pregnancy that affects your ability to do your job must be treated the same as any other temporary disability, including accommodations, light duty, and leave time
- Direct or circumstantial evidence may be used to prove discrimination
Pregnancy Discrimination Law Basics
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the groundbreaking culmination of the Civil Rights Movement and is designed to protect people from discrimination everywhere; Title VII prohibits it specifically in the workplace. It covers hiring practices, wages, training, assignments, and every other aspect of work – in essence, everyone with similar backgrounds and skills must be treated the same way in the workplace. Title VII applies to every employer with 15 or more employees, employment agencies and labor organizations, and governments.
While Title VII does cover discrimination based on sex, it did not originally mention pregnancy specifically. So in 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed to explicitly prohibit that kind of discrimination.
Under that amendment, employers cannot refuse to hire you or change the terms of your employment just because you are pregnant. However, you must be able to perform the major duties of your job.
If you cannot do that, it’s considered a temporary disability under the law. You may, for example, suffer from placenta previa, which means you can’t move around too much or lift anything heavy. Or the basic facts of pregnancy, like a large belly, may affect your ability to perform some tasks. Your employer has to give you the same treatment as any other employee with a temporary disability, which may mean that you get lighter work, disability leave, unpaid leave, or other accommodations based on your employer’s policies. And you don’t have to wait for your employer to notice and make a change – you have the right to ask for those accommodations. For example, you can ask to have your duties changed to avoid exposure to dangerous chemicals or situations in which you’re at risk of falling.
In some cases, a pregnancy-related condition may be considered a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) (like gestational diabetes, for example). Then your employer has to provide reasonable accommodations, like alternative duties.
Am I Experiencing Pregnancy Discrimination?
Sometimes, discrimination is overt – like someone telling you they’re going to fire you because you got pregnant. Most of the time, however, it’s much subtler. You may simply be let go without explanation. Or you may have your shifts cut back or your job duties changed. You may apply for a job and not get hired. The tough part is that any of those things could have other motivations besides pregnancy. So how do you know?
Legally, there are three main elements of a pregnancy discrimination claim. First, as with any discrimination claim, you have to prove that you’re a member of a class of people protected by the Civil Rights Act. If you’re pregnant, you automatically meet that requirement. Next, you must prove that you experienced an “adverse employment action.” That could mean:
- getting fired
- having your hours or pay cut
- being given worse duties or hours
- not being hired
- being passed over for a promotion
As mentioned above, those can happen for a number of reasons and may not be related to pregnancy. So, the third element of a claim is showing that the adverse employment action was a result of your pregnancy.
Linking The Adverse Employment Action And Pregnancy
Obviously if your employer announces that the reason for the adverse employment action is your pregnancy, that’s the easiest kind of proof. For example, say your employer passes over you for a promotion because, “Once you have the baby, you’ll probably be tired all the time and won’t be able to keep up with the work.” Your employer is clearly not promoting you because of your pregnancy.
No direct evidence? Then it’s time to look for circumstantial evidence:
- Did your employment status change right after you announced your pregnancy?
- Have other employees experienced similar adverse actions after announcing pregnancies?
- Did your employer follow standard procedure for the change? For example, if they usually provide written warnings or performance reviews before firing an employee, did you get the same treatment?
- Did their reasons for the adverse action make sense? Or did they replace you with someone with the same qualifications you have, just without the pregnancy?
If your answer to any of those questions is “yes,” then it may be pregnancy discrimination.
We already know that pregnancy discrimination is illegal, so what are the next steps if you believe you’ve been a victim?
Honestly, it’s a tough question to answer. If you do decide to sue and you win, you may be able to get compensation in the form of back pay, damages for pain and suffering, punitive damages (to punish the employer), attorney’s fees, court costs, and other expenses associated with the discrimination.
If you want, the court may also force your employer to hire you, promote you, or give you your old job back. But while employers are legally prohibited from retaliating against you if you sue them for discrimination, you’ll still have to face working with them going forward.
If you were fired, you may choose to send a letter to your employer negotiating a severance package rather than going through the court system. They may be willing to cooperate and if not, you still have the option to sue.
If you do decide that you want to pursue remedies, talk to an experienced attorney right away. You’ll have to file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and there are strict deadlines. An attorney will also help you evaluate the strength of your case and explain both your legal and out-of-court options.
Know Your Rights
In a perfect world, none of this would be an issue – no one should have to choose between a job and a family. Unfortunately, it’s something we’re still working on as a society. The good news is that you do have options if you’ve been the victim of pregnancy discrimination. You just need to know your rights so that you can choose how best to defend them.