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Avoiding Pregnancy Discrimination In The Workplace: Tips for Employers

by Hannah Connor on Aug 8, 2023 10:19:50 AM

If you’re like many companies, odds are that you’ll have pregnant employees at some point. And while there are lots of issues to be aware of with these workers like federal and state leave, one lesser-known protection you’ll need to ensure is that your employees aren’t subject to pregnancy discrimination. What is pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and how can you avoid it? Let’s find out.

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In this article, we’ll explain what pregnancy discrimination is under the law, examples of it in the workplace, how to prevent discrimination in your organization, and steps you can take to support pregnant workers. After reading this, you’ll be prepared to best manage your workforce to avoid claims of pregnancy discrimination.

What is pregnancy discrimination?

Pregnancy discrimination occurs when an applicant or employee is treated unfavorably in the workplace because of their condition. While there are laws prohibiting pregnancy discrimination, it still occurs fairly often; between 2017 and 2022; there were nearly 15,000 claims filed. These claims can arise from discrimination in various aspects of employment, including:

  • Hiring
  • Salary
  • Job assignments
  • Training and development
  • Promotions
  • Benefits
  • Termination 

It’s important to note that protections against discrimination under the law may extend beyond just pregnancy and can include related conditions, breastfeeding, and more. We’ll discuss those laws next.

Which laws protect pregnant workers?

There are 3 federal laws the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces that protect employees from pregnancy and pregnancy-related discrimination.

  1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: This law, which has been amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, prohibits pregnancy discrimination at businesses with more than 15 employees. The protections in this law cover not just currently pregnant workers but prohibit discrimination based on past or potential pregnancy as well as medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth, including breastfeeding, birth control, and having or choosing not to have an abortion.
  2. Pregnant Workers Fairness Act: This law covers employers with at least 15 workers and prohibits employment practices that discriminate against making reasonable accommodations for employees who have known limitations as a result of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. It’s important to note that this law only governs accommodations.
  3. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): While pregnancy is not considered a disability under the law, under the ADA, employers can’t discriminate against an applicant or employee based on a disability, including one that is related to pregnancy. An example of such a disability could be diabetes that develops during pregnancy.

Some states also have their own laws, and they may impose greater obligations or expand the definition of a covered employer. For example, in California, employers with as few as 5 employees are prohibited from pregnancy discrimination and those with just 1 are covered by the state’s anti-harassment law. If you operate in one of these jurisdictions, you’ll need to follow the requirements – federal or state – that are more protective.

Moreover, there are additional laws that protect nursing mothers. While the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to provide reasonable break time and a private space to express breast milk for 1 year after their child's birth as often as they need to, the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act, or PUMP Act, expands the FLSA. Under the PUMP Act, more employees are afforded these protections and are also given the right to sue. It’s important to note that employers with less than 50 employees may not have to comply with these provisions if they can prove doing so would have an undue hardship. 

What are examples of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace?

Pregnancy discrimination can take many forms. Here are some examples of it in the workplace.

  • Your company chooses not to hire a candidate because they are pregnant or because they could become pregnant in the future. Be aware that you also can’t ask questions during a job interview to gather this information from a candidate.
  • Coworkers make disparaging comments, insults, or jokes about a pregnant worker or otherwise make the environment hostile for them. Even less obvious statements about how their pregnancy is impacting their work can give rise to a violation.
  • Your company fires a breastfeeding woman for pumping at work.
  • You force an employee to change jobs or fail to give them additional responsibility because they’re pregnant and you don’t think they can handle the workload. This holds true even if you are simply worried for their safety, such as in environments that require heavy lifting.
  • The company refuses to provide reasonable accommodations for limitations an employee may experience due to their pregnancy. For instance, a worker may request a stool so they’re not always standing on their feet or doing light-duty work.

What can I do to prevent pregnancy discrimination in the workplace?

Preventing pregnancy discrimination is not only essential for ensuring compliance with applicable laws, but also for promoting a respective and inclusive workplace and positive culture. Here are some steps you can take in your environment.

  1. It’s important to get buy-in from senior leadership on the importance of protecting workers from discrimination.
  2. Include your policies around pregnancy discrimination in your employee handbook. These should not only share your commitment to a discrimination and harassment-free workplace but also spell out examples of what’s prohibited as well as how employees can report an alleged violation. And be sure to enforce your policies fairly and consistently.
  3. When you learn of an employee’s pregnancy, show them you support them by sharing available resources with them such as parental benefits or remote work. And continue the conversation throughout so employees feel they can talk with you about support they may need.
  4. Be flexible. Pregnant workers will need to attend many doctor appointments, some of which they won’t be able to schedule outside of work hours. Offer them the flexibility to arrive late or leave early if needed.
  5. Ask about pregnant workers’ experiences. Listen to what they have to say and empathize. And be sure to invite them to share any practices they may have felt were exclusionary so you can address them.

Ending Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers Starts With You

Preventing discrimination – of any kind – in the workplace is critical. As we just discussed, there are several steps your company can take to appropriately handle pregnancies and avoid potential claims of discrimination. But navigating all the laws and their requirements can be a lot, especially as legislative developments continue to expand protections. If you don’t have the expertise or resources in-house to stay on top of all of the rules and manage compliance, you may want to consider working with an outsourced HR provider. If you decide to go this route, know the key things to look for in a provider.

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