It’s Time for Employers to Recognize Pregnant Workers’ Rights

Despite the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act almost 40 years ago, working women are still pushed out of the workplace with astounding frequency when they become pregnant.  This is particularly true for women working low-wage or physically demanding jobs.

How does this happen in 2015? It turns out some managers still don’t understand that it is illegal to discriminate against pregnant women – or they simply don’t care.  We hear stories from women who are taken off of the schedule against their will for no reason other than their pregnancy.  This is patently illegal under federal law.  More often, though, the discrimination is more subtle. 

Although many women are able to continue performing all of their job duties throughout their pregnancies, some women require minor modifications to their jobs to be able to continue working safely. Just as an employee with a disability is entitled to a reasonable accommodation that will allow her to continue working, a woman with an impairment stemming from pregnancy must be accommodated too, so long as her accommodation does not impose an undue expense or conflict with the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. Often times, though, employers and workers alike are unaware that pregnant women are entitled to these protections.  As a result, women are often forced out on leave against their will, resulting in loss of income or even loss of employment in the worst cases.

How can we fix this problem?  Although the law is not perfect, it already provides significant protection to pregnant women who require job modifications to continue working.  The federal Americans with Disabilities Act was amended in 2008 to expand the scope of workers protected by that law. As a result of the amendments, pregnant women who suffer from impairments related to their pregnancies (like back problems, gestational diabetes, or bladder infections) are now entitled to workplace accommodations (like the ability to sit on a stool, eat a snack, or drink water) so they are able to stay on the job and continue earning money to support their families. The problem is that many employers are still unaware of how the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act have increased pregnant workers’ rights.

In the few states like California that have their own pregnancy accommodation laws, more employers are aware of their obligation to comply. But even in states like California, problems persist.  Advocates are pushing for improved legislation at the federal level, but pushing anything through Washington these days is tough. 

The Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law has convened a Pregnancy Accommodation Working Group that is beginning to study the important role unions can play in improving working conditions for pregnant women. As the proportion of women in the unionized workforce grows, unions have a growing interest in promoting job security and predictability for pregnant workers. Educating union officials and members about these rights is a good place to start.