10 Rights of Every Pregnant Working Woman

Ever since the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978, it's been illegal to discriminate against pregnant women in the workplace. Problem is, employers aren't totally getting it, which is why the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued new guidelines on this issue -- the first time it's done so in 30 years. We say it's about time! But we also understand why it hasn't totally sunk in, since legalese isn't the easiest language to understand. So we asked legal experts to spell out what these new guidelines really mean. Here's a cheat sheet:

  1. You can't be fired because you're pregnant. While this may seem like a no-brainer, bosses have some underhanded ways to make termination due to pregnancy seem legit. For instance, "We have heard from pregnant women who were fired by bosses who did not give them a reason, or who gave them a reason that was provably false, such as firing them for misplacing a bank deposit that was not misplaced but was actually made," says Cynthia Calvert, an employment lawyer who studies pregnancy discrimination from both the employer and the employee perspective and president of Workforce 21C.
  2. Your boss can't make you miserable to convince you to quit. Talk about passive aggressive, but it happens all the time. "Some pregnant women report being screamed at, being given dirty and dangerous work, and being placed in work environments like hot rooms or rooms with chemical fumes that are dangerous for their unborn babies," says Calvert. 
  3. Employers can't refuse to hire you because you're pregnant. Of course, employers won't come out and say the reason you're not hired is your pregnancy. Instead, they may retract an offer of employment without explanation once your pregnancy becomes known, or tell you that you'll be hired after you have your baby. "They may also tell a pregnant woman who is qualified for the position that she is not qualified, or tell her she's less qualified than a non-pregnant applicant," says Calvert.
  4. Employers can't refuse to hire you because you might become pregnant one day. Employers are sometimes reluctant to hire young women due to fears that they may one day "drop out" to raise a family. That's illegal, and we're glad it is.
  5. You can't be fired for taking time off for pregnancy, childbirth, or recovery. "Pregnant women who are eligible for FMLA leave can usually take off up to 12 weeks of medical or maternity leave," says Calvert. Pregnancy and birth, after all, are major health hurdles and should be treated as such, even though they often aren't. "The classic example is the business that reacts with concern when one of its employees has a heart attack," says Calvert. "They send him flowers and cards, hold his job open, and let him come back to work gradually and take time off for doctor’s appointments, BUT they fire the employee who asks to have the same amount of leave to give birth and recover." If your pregnancy or delivery is particularly arduous, this time off can even be extended past 12 weeks under the American Disabilities Act.
  6. You're allowed to take breaks. "Employers must allow pregnant women to have breaks to have a snack or drink water or check their blood glucose levels if they have a medical condition such as gestational diabetes," say Calvert. As long as you have a letter from your health care provider stating so, you're in the clear.
  7. You can't be forced to use up your maternity leave due to pregnancy-related disabilities. "This happens so many times," says Calvert. "Essentially, a pregnant woman will be told by her doctor not to lift more than 50 pounds or to take a break and get off her feet every two hours, or given another similar restriction. The doctor gives her a note to give to her employer. Instead of accommodating her the way the employer accommodates employees who have disabilities, the employer tells her she must go out on unpaid leave until she can work without restrictions. When is that? Usually several weeks after she gives birth. If this happens more than six weeks before she gives birth -- it almost always does -- then she will likely use up her employer’s maternity leave before she gives birth. The employer then fires her because she is unable to return to work at the time her leave expired."
  8. You can't be demoted because you're pregnant. Supervisors may sneakily try to couch the demotion as a way to "protect the baby," but don't be fooled. "There are actual court cases about this where women announced they were pregnant, then were moved from sales or supervisory positions to receptionist and clerical positions because their supervisors said it would be less stressful for them," says Calvert.
  9. You have a right to pump milk if you're nursing. "A bathroom is not a permissible location, even if it is private," says Collin Bond, Esq., at NHGLhaw.com.
  10. You can't not be promoted because of a pregnancy. Sometimes the failure to promote because of pregnancy is obvious, because employers will make statements like, "Sorry, Aneesha, we can't give you a managerial position right now because you wouldn't be able to run the department while you're on leave" or "It wouldn't be fair to you or the company if we gave you this promotion while you're pregnant." But other times, the failure to promote because of pregnancy is less obvious but no less real, such as when a woman is told that she will be promoted the next time there is an opening, but after she announces her pregnancy, the promotion is given to a non-pregnant employee. "One woman claimed that she was next in line for a promotion when she became pregnant, and she was told that there was a promotion freeze so she couldn't be promoted, only there wasn't," says Calvert. "Pregnant women have also shown that pregnancy was the likely reason they were not promoted when they were obviously more qualified for a promotion than the non-pregnant person who got the promotion, and where they have shown that the employer changed the qualifications for promotion to avoid promoting a pregnant woman."

More from The Stir: Pregnancy on the Job: 5 Dos & Don'ts

If you suspect you're facing discrimination, here's what to do: "Document everything that happens regarding your discrimination either by writing down a summary of the incident with the date and time on a pad of paper," says Bond. "These notes will be invaluable should you decide to file a complaint against your employer." From there, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or seek legal counsel. For more information on pregnancy-related lawsuits go to EEOC.gov.

Have you faced discrimination at work due to pregnancy or childbirth?


Image © Don Mason/Corbis

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