Business Law

Employment Issues: Pregnant Employees

Not sure how to treat a pregnant employee? When does your concern about a pregnant employee's well-being and job performance cross the line to become illegal discrimination?

Acquaint yourself with anti-discrimination laws now to save trouble down the road.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) is a federal law. It makes it illegal to use pregnancy or childbirth as a factor in employment decisions.

An employer can't treat a woman less favorably because of her pregnancy. Employers also can't discriminate based on a worker giving birth or having a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.

The law applies to:

  • Employers with 15 or more employees
  • Unions and labor organizations
  • Employment agencies
  • Federal, state and local governments

Countering Workplace Bias

The law aims to counter stereotypes that unfairly restrict the careers of women.

Employers should not assume that:

  • Pregnancy prevents women from doing a good job
  • Childbearing workers are less committed to their jobs
  • Pregnant women aren't suitable for certain jobs

You may have an employee temporarily unable to do her job because of pregnancy. She should be treated like any employee with a temporary disability.

Pregnant Workers' Legal Rights

It's illegal for an employer to:

  • Fire, or refuse to hire or promote, a woman because she's pregnant or may become pregnant
  • Take other adverse employment action against a women because she's pregnant, may become pregnant, or gives birth (cut her hours, withhold projects, demote her to a lower level position)
  • Treat pregnancy-related conditions differently from other disabling conditions
  • Deny pregnant women fringe benefits given to other employees
  • Require an employee to take maternity leave
  • Discriminate against an employee because she is pregnant and unmarried
  • Not allow a pregnancy-related absence for the same amount of time as any other disability or sick leave
  • Not allow job modifications given to other employees with a temporary disability (modified tasks, alternative assignments)

Preventing Pregnancy Discrimination

Claims of pregnancy discrimination are on the rise. To avoid problems:

  • Establish a written company policy prohibiting pregnancy discrimination
  • Educate employees and managers about the legal rights of pregnant and childbearing workers
  • Avoid having a separate "maternity leave" policy that suggests pregnancy is treated differently from other temporary disabilities
  • Frame a pregnant employee's leave to comply with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). That law allows parents up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child

Interacting with a Pregnant Employee

To avoid accidental discrimination against a pregnant employee:

  • Ask appropriately concerned questions, such as "Is there anything we can do to help you?"
  • Don't suggest she should be at home instead of working
  • Mention that she may want to find out about the company's FMLA policy, as she'll need to give advance notice if she's plans to take leave
  • Direct the employee to your company's human resources department for help
  • If you haven't disciplined the employee for tardiness and other problems before her pregnancy, don't start now

Educate your managers and employees about pregnancy discrimination. You'll not only avoid legal hassles, you'll build a stronger work environment for your business.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I require a pregnant employee to provide a doctor's note if I'm worried she can't safely perform her job?
  • Can I discipline or demote a pregnant employee who is doing a really bad job?
  • Do I have to give pregnant employees special privileges that I don't give other employees?
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