“Since 2016,” reports Forbes, “there's been a steady rise in the number of federal pregnancy discrimination lawsuits. And thanks to the coronavirus, this trend accelerated in 2020.” In fact, the number of cases almost doubled despite the fact that the birthrate in the nation had been declining by an average of 2% a year.
The dramatic rise in lawsuits, however, is a direct result of employers unlawfully targeting pregnant applicants and employees during harsh economic times. Tom Spiggle in Forbes writes, “Because of their need for parental leave and to make use of employer-provided health insurance benefits, pregnant employees tend to be more expensive for an employer than an employee who isn't pregnant.” This economic reality entices employers to act in a discriminatory and illegal manner when faced with a pregnant employee.
But regardless of economic circumstances, pregnancy-based discrimination by an employer is illegal. California and federal law prohibit employers from discriminating against pregnant employees when it comes to hiring, compensation, training, and almost every aspect regarding employment. A pregnant woman cannot be fired on the basis of her pregnancy. Nor can an employer deny a pregnant employee a promotion or take away job responsibilities because the employee is pregnant. As an applicant for a job, it's also illegal for a potential employer not to offer the position because the woman is pregnant.
Also note that it's discriminatory and illegal to refuse to hire a woman because she might someday become pregnant.
A Closer Look at the Law
Federal and California state statutes unequivocally protect pregnant women against workplace discrimination. On the federal side, Title VII of the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits pregnancy discrimination in all its forms. Violations under this act are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The language set forth by the EEOC could not be any clearer:
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. Women affected by pregnancy or related conditions must be treated in the same manner as other applicants or employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.
Workplace discrimination based on a woman's pregnancy can also include an employer's denial of reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers and/or the necessary time off. Also, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) protects employees from workplace discrimination based on eligible disabilities, which also includes pregnancy-related impairments that entitle an employee to reasonable accommodations under the ADA.
The law is clear: pregnant women benefit from strong statutory workplace protections—almost any negative employment action taken by the company/employer based on an employee's pregnancy or related medical conditions is illegal.
California Law is Even Stronger
Generally, state statues and protections are more favorable to employees than federal law. For instance, federal law governs companies that have fifteen or more employees; whereas in California, the law applies to companies that have five or more employees. With this lower threshold in California, far more employers are required to comply with California's anti-discrimination statues than its federal counterparts.
As enforced by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, if you're a pregnant woman in California, your employer has an obligation to do the following:
- Reasonably accommodate your medical needs related to your pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions—this includes temporarily modifying your work duties, providing you with a stool or chair, or allowing more frequent breaks
- Transfer you to a less strenuous or hazardous position (where one is available) or duties if medically needed because of your pregnancy
- Provide you with pregnancy disability leave (PDL) of up to four months (the working days you normally would work in one-third of a year or 17 1/3 weeks) and return you to your same job when you are no longer disabled by your pregnancy or, in certain instances, to a comparable job. Taking PDL, however, does not protect you from non-leave related employment actions, such as a layoff
- Provide you with a reasonable amount of break time and the use of a room or other location in close proximity to the employee's work area to express breast milk in private as set forth in the Labor Code
There are five major federal and California state laws that provide pregnancy-related leave rights to pregnant employees and new mothers; they are—
- The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
- California’s Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (PDL)
- The California Family Rights Act (CFRA)
- The New Parent Leave Act
Each legal protection has its own eligibility requirements and each one provides leave for different lengths of time and under various circumstances. It's almost certain that a pregnant employee will be able to enjoy the rights afforded under most if not all of the above Pregnancy-Related Leave laws. If an employer denies a pregnant employee and/or a new parent leave under these Pregnancy-Related Leave laws there is a strong likelihood that the employer has discriminated against the employee—and the employee may very well have a claim. In fact, given the continuing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, pregnant employees remain vulnerable.
Historically, pregnant workers have been harassed and discriminated against by their employers. Unfortunately, even with strict laws in place, pregnancy discrimination in the workplace continues. In just the last decade alone, more than 50,000 pregnancy discrimination claims have been filed with the EEOC. Fortunately, experienced and talented attorneys are here to guide and support pregnant women as they fight for their rights.
At the outset, we asked the question: Can you get fired for being pregnant? The answer is a resounding NO. If your rights as a pregnant employee or pregnant applicant were violated, then your first action is to call us for a free consultation. We will help lead the way.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS | KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
As you can see, it's important to understand the law and know your rights. It's also important to seek the advice of an attorney—one experienced in employment law and protecting the rights of workers.
Because California is an “at-will” employment state (employers are free to terminate employees at any time) employees think that they have no rights. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If you believe your termination was unlawful or even if you're not sure and need advice, take action today and contact us—the experts at Lawyers for Employee & Consumer Rights, a leading California employment law firm. With more than forty remote attorneys, LFECR is prepared to work on behalf of their clients anywhere in California.
Fired unfairly? Take advantage of your free consultation.