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Pregnancy discrimination: Words versus deeds

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been the topic of the last year. Another troublesome niche in workplace gender inequality still gets less attention: it is subtle to overt pregnancy discrimination.

As a short-term disability, the months of pregnancy require prenatal appointments, added trips to the restroom and often lifting weight restrictions. When a request to stop lifting heavy boxes is denied or jokes about your size make you uncomfortable, start taking notes to document what is happening.

The fashion industry

A recent example comes from a fashion house of a designer lauded for inclusion and fundraising for anti-harassment efforts. According to a former employee, the work environment did not live up to the external image.

At six months of pregnancy, the sales director had to hear derogatory comments about her weight gain and answer questions about whether she was getting enough exercise. When she suffered from the swelling of preeclampsia, the comment was “Maybe dresses aren’t the best option, nobody should see those legs.” She asked to wear flats. Her employer objected.

She explained how she felt a target and began to document what was happening. After a c-section and concerns about breast-feeding, she asked to work part-time from home. The company asked her to return to the office full time. She could not and lost her job. Was it a termination or resignation? Not surprising, each party framed it differently, but the label may not matter based on an individual situation.

Was it an isolated incident? Reports from other employees indicate a systemic disdain for anyone taking time off for any type of medical leave.

Is this legal?

From 2010 to 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 31,000 pregnancy discrimination complaints. That may not fully reflect the problem because many women report fearing to request any accommodation in the first place.

What is pregnancy discrimination? It includes:

  • Refusing to hire an applicant because she is pregnant
  • Demoting or terminating a pregnant employee
  • Denying a mother the same job she had before taking parental leave
  • Treating a pregnant woman differently than other temporarily disables employees (denying a lifting restriction for a pregnant woman but allowing the same request to another employee recovering from a surgery)

Title VII includes the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. The PDA clarifies the prohibition on discrimination related to pregnancy, childbirth and related conditions. This federal legislation applies to all employers with more than 15 employees.

For larger employers with more than 50 employees, the FMLA guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave where your health benefits remain in place to care for a newborn or adopted child. This law also requires that you receive the same job when you return with the same pay and benefits.

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination related to disability. Recent changes added pregnancy-related impairments to the list that requires reasonable accommodations.

The only way to put a stop to pregnancy-related discrimination is to stand up. Find out how these federal laws and possibly state law protect your rights by sharing your concerns with an experienced employment law attorney.

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