High-Risk Pregnancy Entitles Employees to Extended Leave
A recent case in California has raised the issue of how two state laws designed to protect pregnant workers interact. A woman who used up her pregnancy leave and wanted more time under the general disability law will have her day in court, according to Sanchez v. Swissport.
Pregnancy + Disability = More Time Off
Under the California Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (PDLL), women are eligible for four months of pregnancy leave. The PDLL is part of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, physical disability, or medical condition.
The courts in California had never before had to determine whether an employee who uses her pregnancy disability leave is also entitled to consideration under the larger FEHA for more time due to “disability.”
Ana G. Fuentes Sanchez was hired by Swissport Inc. in August 2007 as a cleaning agent. Almost two years later, in February 2009, Sanchez became pregnant and got a temporary leave of absence from Swissport because her pregnancy was deemed high-risk by doctors, who prescribed bed rest.
Sanchez claimed that her employer knew she needed time off for her entire pregnancy, and that she was due in October 2009. But once her four months of leave under the PDLL were up, she was fired in July.
She sued Swissport, claiming that the company owed her reasonable accommodation under the FEHA, in addition to the four months of leave she was owed under the PDLL. Swissport said once it had satisfied the FEHA, it had discharged its responsibilities. The trial court agreed.
The appellate court on Feb. 21 disagreed, stating that PDLL doesn’t replace the protections available for pregnant workers under the FEHA , and that Swissport owed Sanchez more leave once her four months of pregnancy disability leave were up.
“[T]he plain language of the PDLL . . . makes clear that its remedies augment, rather than supplant, those set forth elsewhere in the FEHA,” said the appellate court. “By its terms, the PDLL provides that its remedies are “in addition to’ those governing pregnancy, childbirth, and pregnancy-related medical conditions set forth in the FEHA.”
Absent an undue hardship on the employer, it must accommodate an employee’s disability by engaging in an “interactive process” with the employee. Since Sanchez properly stated a claim as required under the FEHA, the case will return to the trial court.
Reminder for Employers
This is an important case for workers who suffer high-risk pregnancies, because it reminds employers that they must work with these employees to find reasonable accommodations.
Plus, its principle extends to other laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and state laws such as the California Family Rights Act.
“[S]imply complying with maximum leave entitlements provided under laws such as California’s pregnancy disability leave law and/or FMLA/CFRA does not necessarily satisfy an employer’s obligation to a disabled employee,” writes employment lawyer Robin Largent on Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger’s California Labor & Employment Law Blog.
“Employers should always engage in an interactive process with the employee at or near the expiration of the leave to assess how much additional leave time (or other accommodations) the employee needs,” says Largent.