As the Huffington Post highlighted last week, the EEOC has filed a recent spate of pregnancy discrimination lawsuits. One case is against an employer that had a written policy requiring termination of pregnant employees in their third month of pregnancy. In another, an employer required pregnant workers to submit a note from their doctors in order to continue working during pregnancy. These rules seem like a throwback to when pregnant women were expected to quit work as soon as they began to “show.” But this kind of discrimination is still happening today, almost 35 years after the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
Too many employers still seem to be relying on an outdated personnel manual. In fact, the past 10 years have seen a significant uptick in claims of pregnancy discrimination. Some employers continue to blatantly discriminate by firing pregnant workers, especially those in physically demanding jobs. Others are a bit more subtle in forcing pregnant women out of the workplace: they refuse to make minor adjustments to job duties for those workers who need such accommodations to continue safely working.
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, recently introduced in Congress, would make a big difference. The bill would strengthen the protections in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by requiring employers to make the same sort of reasonable accommodations for pregnancy that they are already required to make for disabilities. Adding this clarity to the law is important, because when pregnant workers have brought Pregnancy Discrimination Act cases challenging employers’ denials of simple accommodations like being permitted to carry a water bottle on the job or being allowed to avoid heavy lifting for a few months, they have often lost. For those pregnant workers who need minor adjustments to their job duties, the commonsense response should be to make the simple accommodation, not to fire the worker. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would make this common sense the norm in American workplaces.
But we don’t have to wait for the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to become law in order to make progress against pregnancy discrimination. In its draft strategic enforcement plan for the next four years, the EEOC has taken an important step, identifying cases in which pregnant workers are denied accommodations that are routinely provided to similarly situated workers as a national priority. If an employer lets a worker with a bad back avoid heavy lifting for a few weeks, but refuses to make the same accommodation for a pregnant worker who needs it, that’s clearly already illegal under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The EEOC’s new targeted enforcement will help ensure that employers know that and that pregnant workers receive the workplace accommodations they are entitled to.
The idea that pregnant women don’t belong in the workplace should have been tossed onto the garbage heap of mistaken ideas about women long ago. It could live there happily alongside the once widely accepted idea that distance running would cause a woman’s uterus to fall out. About three out of four women will be pregnant and employed at some point in their lives, and countless scores of workers have proven over and over again that pregnancy is no bar to women’s full and equal participation in the workforce. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the EEOC’s new plan to target pregnancy discrimination will help put an end once and for all to efforts to push pregnant women out of the workplace.