EEOC Targets Pregnancy Discrimination
Pregnancy brings a host of new concerns to a expectant mother’s life – but one of them should not be whether she will be forced out of her job.
Pregnancy discrimination has become a hot-button issue for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. If your employer has decided your pregnancy makes you a liability, it is setting itself up for new risks of liability itself.
Three federal laws protect pregnant women from discrimination in the workplace: the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, passed in 1978; the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993; and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964.
At an EEOC meeting last February, experts told the agency that despite those laws, the filing of pregnancy discrimination charges is increasing, says labor and employment litigator Richard Cohen, a partner with Fox Rothschild LLP in New York. For example, in 2011, such charges filed against employers increased by 23 percent.
The EEOC followed up in September, announcing that pregnancy discrimination is an “emerging issue” that the agency plans to target for the next four years.
Specifically, the agency said in a Sept. 4 Strategic Enforcement Plan that it will focus on making sure employers are “accommodating pregnancy when women have been forced onto unpaid leave after being denied accommodations routinely provided to similarly situated employees.”
Forced into Unpaid Leave
Women are “forced” into unpaid leave when their employers refuse to accommodate their particular needs during pregnancy “by making reasonable adjustments to their work rules,” explains Cohen. “If they require flexible hours to see doctors, for example, or require more frequent bathroom breaks, and the employer denies these requests, their only choice is take a leave, which is frequently unpaid.”
Other times, the discrimination happens when an employer actually terminates a woman’s employment because of her pregnancy.
By issuing guidelines and bringing lawsuits more frequently, the EEOC is trying to “get employers to understand that they need to accommodate the needs of pregnant women or they will be sued,” he says.
And employers have indeed been sued – the EEOC got busy quickly.
September Was a Busy Month
Cohen points to three pregnancy discrimination suits the EEOC filed in September alone:
- It sued J’s Seafood Restaurant of Panama City, Fla., for discharging two servers as soon as the employer found out they were pregnant and telling them their pregnancies made them “a liability to the company.”
- It sued Bayou City Wings, a Baytown, Texas, restaurant chain, for laying off several women under the employer’s written policy that requires their termination after the third month of their pregnancy – for the protection of “her child’s safety,” according to the manager who fired them, despite a plaintiff providing a doctor’s note saying she could work up until the end of her pregnancy.
- And it sued Muskegon River Youth Home in Muskegon, Mich., over its discriminatory pregnancy policy, which requires an employee to immediately notify the company as soon as she learns she’s pregnant, and requires her to have a doctor’s note saying she can continue to work.
Protect Yourself When You’re Expecting
What should a woman do if she believes she’s being discriminated against at work – or even fired – because of her pregnancy?
“First, she should go to the employer-designated officer, or the supervisor or other manager if there is no employer-designated officer, and make a clear complaint about the nature of the discrimination,” says Cohen.
“If this does not remedy the situation, the employee, like any employee who believes that she is the victim of any type of discrimination, has a right to file a charge of discrimination with the federal agency, the EEOC, or any existing state and municipal anti-discrimination agency,” he says. When appropriate, the EEOC brings employment discrimination cases in federal court on behalf of employees.
Finally, check with a labor and employment lawyer, because as Cohen says, you might have the option of going straight to state court if your state’s laws permit you to file suit.
If you have been discriminated against at work because of your pregnancy, contact a labor and employment lawyer on Lawyers.com to discuss your options.