Under both federal law and Pennsylvania law, employers may not discriminate against employees who belong to certain vulnerable groups or possess certain protected characteristics. This basic premise underlies all Civil Rights legislation.
Pregnancy is an example of one such characteristic. Pregnancy discrimination is specifically addressed in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e(k), referred to as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).
Penalizing an employee for being pregnant is unlawful. However, the converse can be equally true. That is, treating an employee who has revealed a pregnancy as though she is unable to perform the job, fragile, or needs to be taken care of, can also reflect gender discrimination. Does this seem contradictory? Confusing? This brief guide will cover the basics. But at the core, employers need to have a consistent process for all employees protected under the law. Consistency wins the day, even if in individual cases it seems more or less fair. It’s best to speak with a qualified employment lawyer if you have questions about this subject.
The PDA is an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and applicants/candidates based on pregnancy. The PDA specifically prohibits discrimination against pregnant workers and candidates when making decisions related to:
The PDA essentially requires employers to treat pregnant employees as if they have a short-term disability and provide pregnant workers with the same accommodations or benefits as it provides for non-pregnant workers with short-term disabilities. The U.S. Supreme Court said it succinctly:
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act makes clear that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination based on pregnancy. It also says that employers must treat women affected by pregnancy the same for all employment-related purposes as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e(k).
Young v. UPS, 575 U.S. 206, 135 S. Ct. 1338 (2015). Think about it through the following example: a male construction worker has a shoulder injury from a softball game after work and is released by his physician to “light duty.” Before you determine what work you have that is “light duty,” realize that all similar employees with short term injuries must be treated equally. So, act with intentionality:
These cases are all fact specific. Consider a slight change of facts. The male construction worker with the softball injury was able to stay at the office and answer phones because the week prior the receptionist quit. When a new receptionist is hired, that work is no longer available as a modified duty assignment. And just because an employee with a short-term disability, like pregnancy, needs modified duty, does not mean you oust the new receptionist or that you have to let the pregnant employee sit in the office with nothing to do.
If there is no work; there is no work. You do not owe an employee with a short-term disability, including pregnancy, a 40-hour work week, if you do not have the actual work that meets the stated restrictions, even where there may have been other instances when employees with short term disabilities were provided modified work, as long as the employer had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for making a distinction. In Young, the Supreme Court stated that it “doubts that Congress intended to grant pregnant workers an unconditional “most-favored-nation” status, such that employers who provide one or two workers with an accommodation must provide similar accommodations to all pregnant workers, irrespective of any other criteria. (Young, 575 U.S. 206, 207, 135 S. Ct. 1338, 1342.).
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) only applies to your company if you have 50 employees on the payroll within 75 miles of the location where the employee works. The FMLA applies to pregnancy if there are medical conditions that meet the statutory definition of a serious health condition. And even then, the employee must be eligible for leave by having worked at a company for at least 1,250 hours in the past 12-month period). If the FMLA is applicable to a medical condition of pregnancy, follow your FMLA policy and the applicable regulations.
The Pennsylvania Human Rights Act (PHRA) is a state law that generally requires the same protections as the PDA. However, the state law applies to companies with four or more employees, ensuring it casts a wider net than the PDA alone.
Pregnancy is not a disability. Do not treat women who are pregnant as if they are disabled. This type of paternalistic treatment of women can result in a violation of the ADA, as well as Title VII. There are conditions of pregnancy that may qualify as a disability, and in those instances, it is the obligation of the employee to request accommodation. In that case, you apply the principles that guide an ADA analysis, using the interactive process to determine what if any accommodation will allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.
Being accused of pregnancy discrimination could have significant consequences for you and your company. Consider attorney’s fees, potential damages, disruption of work, and negative publicity. Thus, you must take all steps necessary to avoid these accusations in the first place.
At N. Stotler Law, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an employer legal support professional can help you carefully review your current policies to ensure you are not accidentally committing pregnancy discrimination. If you have already been accused of doing so, we can offer the effective defense you need. Learn more about how we can help by contacting us online or calling us at 724-841-5565.