Pregnancy Discrimination and How to Recognize It

Expecting mothers have many big changes to focus on during the course of their pregnancy. Many of the changes take place further into the pregnancy or after the child is born.

However, there are still important decisions to make even in the earliest stages of pregnancy. One of the decisions expecting mothers must make is whether they want to continue working or if it makes more sense to leave work, either temporarily or for the foreseeable future. For many years, the biggest discussion regarding pregnant mothers continuing to work focused on maternity leave, which guarantees time off for mothers while they are preparing to give birth and for a set amount of time after the child is born.

Many businesses have become progressive in terms of maternity leave, even offering a general paternity leave for fathers. However, this is not the only issue facing pregnant workers. Another one of the challenges facing pregnant workers has to do with pregnancy discrimination.

What is Pregnancy Discrimination?

Pregnancy discrimination is not a new concept, but it does not receive nearly as much attention as the subject of maternity leave. As a result, many workers are unaware pregnancy discrimination is a potential issue in the workplace. Pregnancy discrimination refers to an employer treating a pregnant employee unfairly because of their condition. Pregnancy discrimination occurs in a few ways, with some of the most common examples including:

  • Denial of or forcing time off.
  • Demotion or termination.
  • Denial of reasonable accommodations.
  • Enforcement of unreasonable working requirements.

Pregnancy discrimination commonly occurs when pregnant workers decide to stay at the same job, but there are also examples of pregnancy discrimination outside of an existing workplace. An obvious example is an employer refusing to hire a job applicant based solely on the fact she is pregnant. Other hiring managers tell pregnant applicants to reapply after their pregnancy, which is another form of pregnancy discrimination. Another subtler form of pregnancy discrimination involves the interviewer asking the applicant whether she already has children and whether she is planning to have more children. It may seem like an innocent question, but many recruiters ask this question to gauge whether the applicant is likely to take maternity leave in the future.

Is Pregnancy Discrimination Illegal?

Pregnancy discrimination was declared illegal in 1964, under the aptly named Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Under the act, employers are not allowed to discriminate based on pregnancy, childbirth or any medical conditions relating to pregnancy. Pregnant employees must be treated as equal peers to someone working the same position who is not pregnant. Pregnant employees who are temporarily unable to perform their duties because of their pregnancy are treated as temporarily disabled employees and gain the same rights and protections as these employees. Examples of benefits include:

  • Providing lighter duty or modifying tasks to be less difficult.
  • Providing an alternative assignment.
  • Assigning disability leave.

Another benefit covered by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act relates to health insurance. Any health insurance plans offered by the employer must cover for pregnancy related conditions. As of writing, there is an exemption for abortions, unless it was required because the mother’s life was at risk or due to medical complications. It is important to note, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not guarantee paid disability leave for employees if such a benefit is not normally available at work. Many businesses require employees to work a certain number of hours each week or be with the company for a predetermined amount of time to get paid disability leave. If you do not meet these benefits, disability leave is available, but you are not paid for the time you are unable to work.

Spotting Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace

Despite pregnancy discrimination being illegal, many employees suffer from pregnancy discrimination each year. In 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received almost 3,500 pregnancy discrimination charges, and this only accounts for employees who filed a formal complaint. Many other employees either did not report their case or were not aware they were being discriminated against. Pregnancy discrimination is becoming more common due to the increase in mothers who choose to work instead of going on maternity leave.

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Spotting pregnancy discrimination in the workplace is tricky. Most employees know they have some level of legal protection against discrimination but may not recognize the full extent. Employers are also subtle about discriminating against pregnant employees to avoid any lawsuits. Many employers try to trick their employees by insisting they have to make changes because of the pregnancy. For example, many employers convince pregnant employees to take a demotion by insisting they are legally required to make the change, so the employee has less stressful work while pregnant.

This is twisting how employees are protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, pregnant employees have the right to ask for less demanding work. For example, pregnant employees who normally perform physical acts can act for reassignment, as there are strict limits to what they are capable of lifting while pregnant. However, it is the employee who has to request this change, not the employer. An employer is allowed to ask about any changes and make it clear such options are available if necessary, but he or she cannot force the employee into a different position.

There are some limits to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Some employees believe employers are required to hold their position for however long they want to stay away. Employers are only required to hold a job open for the same length of time they are required to keep a position open for an employee out on sickness or disability. Some employers offer extended time, but this is a company benefit and varies depending on location.

Another common tactic employers use is convincing pregnant employees they are not eligible for a promotion until after their pregnancy, since their condition keeps them from accepting new responsibilities. Employers are never allowed to deny you a promotion or any other workplace benefits because of your pregnancy.

What to do in Cases of Pregnancy Discrimination

If you feel discriminated in the workplace, you can file a charge of discrimination through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In most situations, employees are required to file the charge within 180 days of the action occurring. Employees can file for discrimination even if they no longer work with the business. Employees do not have to hire a lawyer to make a claim. When filing a charge, provide as many details as possible, such as the date and time, where the incident took place and who was involved. If you have a union representative or an Equal Employment Opportunity Officer, speak with him or her for additional assistance.

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