Having a baby should be one of the happiest times in a woman’s life, yet sadly, for many working women, the joy is often overshadowed by pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.
“While we do not see as many cases of women being terminated upon their employer’s learning of their pregnancy, we continue to see women who take time off for a pregnancy-related disability, birth of a child, or child care being discriminated against,” says Alexis James, an attorney in Calabasas, Calif., who has represented many women in pregnancy discrimination cases.
James says the discrimination comes in the form of expectant women being passed up for promotions, having their job responsibilities diminished, or being terminated for pre-textual reasons (reasons given by the employer that on the face seem legitimate, but are either exaggerated, based on incomplete evidence, or given to the pregnant woman, whereas a non-pregnant employee would not receive the same level of discipline).
“The Pregnancy Discrimination Act recently marked its’ 35th anniversary and has helped to inform pregnant women of their rights, and given them protection when asking their employers for the time off or accommodations that they need,” James says. “However, as with other discrimination laws, there is much work to be done to protect the rights of pregnant women.”
Strengthening the Laws
James notes that a bill currently being proposed in Congress called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would strengthen the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.
“Currently, employers in some states are not required to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees, in the same way that they are required to provide those accommodations to workers who are injured in the workplace,” James says. “The disparity leads to pregnant women having to take a medical leave when they could have been provided with a reasonable accommodation (i.e. carrying a water bottle for hydration, allowing for 10 minutes of sitting for every 45 minutes spent standing, etc.) that allowed them to perform the essential functions of their job.”
In California, where James works, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, makes it unlawful for an employer to refuse to provide reasonable accommodation requested by an employee on the advice of her health care provider, for conditions related to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.
“Hopefully, other states will follow suit and the federal bill will be passed,” James says.
Both pregnancy discrimination and harassment are illegal and shouldn’t be tolerated. If you are feel that you are experiencing unfair treatment at work due to your pregnancy, James recommends taking the following steps:
Take action. “If a woman has been terminated as a result of informing her employer that she is pregnant or wants to exercise her right to a protected leave, she should call her state’s labor board or contact an attorney,” James says. “If an employee feels that she is being discriminated against in the terms, conditions and benefits of her work, I often advise my clients to meet with their human resources department and to put their requests or concerns in writing. Employers tend to take requests in writing more seriously; it also may prompt a response in writing, which is helpful to the employee who is trying to document the process that they went through to obtain their law-provided rights.”
Document your situation. “If a pregnant woman feels that she is being disciplined inappropriately in the employer’s attempt to punish, demote or terminate her, and is asked to sign an acknowledgment of the discipline, she should write her reasons for disagreement on the disciplinary form,” James says. “Further, the pregnant employee should keep a detailed record of all acts that she feels are discriminatory, as well as proof (emails, employee handbooks, disciplinary notices) and a name of all witnesses.”
Have a plan. Sadly, pregnancy discrimination doesn’t always end after the baby arrives. James says she often hears from women who have exercised their rights to take pregnancy disability leave, and/or leave under the California Family Rights Act, who are made to suffer various forms of discrimination and harassment when they return to work.
“These women are passed over for promotion, are made to work less desirable hours and shifts in an effort to make them quit, or are subject to comments such as, ‘You don’t really care about your job, you just want to get home to your family.’” she says. “In my personal experience, I had to leave behind a firm that was not very family-friendly and open my own office so that I could have flexibility.”
James recommends that all expectant mothers learn what rights their state and federal laws provide for them by contacting an attorney, a worker’s rights clinic, or a human resources consultant, so they can feel empowered to ask for the very rights and privileges to which they are entitled.
Know Your Benefits
Lauren Wallenstein, a Los Angeles, Calif., mom and human resources consultant started her own business, Milk Your Benefits (milkyourbenefits.com), three years ago, to offer expectant moms guidance on knowing their rights and maximizing their income and maternity leave. She recommends the following workplace strategies:
- Announcing your pregnancy: “I advise my clients to announce their pregnancy as soon as they enter their second trimester or whenever they begin showing,” Wallenstein says. “You don’t want to be in the position of being obviously pregnant and not announcing your pregnancy because it breeds questions and ill will.”
- Prepare in advance: “Determine in advance if you are eligible for federal and/or state pregnancy leave of absence,” Wallenstein says. “Also find out about any state or company disability policies so they can be used for income replacement during your maternity leave.”
- Returning to work: “If your employer asks if you are returning to work after your maternity leave, your answer should always be yes,” Wallenstein says. “Even if you are dreaming of being a stay-at-home, mom things can change. It’s a tough economy, and your partner could lose their job, so it’s important to cover your bases.”
- Breastfeeding: If you plan to breastfeed your child, be aware that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed into law in March, 2010, provides protection for nursing moms in the workplace. It requires employers to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time the employee has the need to express milk. Employers are also required to provide a place other than a bathroom to express milk. This law primarily protects hourly workers and is subject to exceptions.