Rights and Risks When it Comes to Pregnant Employees

With perks like arcades, ball pits, laundry services, round-the-clock meals, and pretty much anything else it takes to coddle energetic young employees not quite ready to assume full adulthood, Silicon Valley firms are legendary for offering workers anything it takes to keep them at their desks instead of tending to an outside life. The latest entry in the “They get what?” panoply of benefits for high-tech workers is egg freezing, currently at Apple and Facebook and, presumably, to be adopted by more companies if it proves popular. While it’s being touted as a generous perk worth around $20,000, there’s no shortage of fierce criticism that it’s simply a manipulative way to extract longer, more focused efforts from younger employees the companies don’t want to see distracted by families and greater work-life balance. (It’s worth noting that, in some cases, the offer is extended to spouses of employees, so it’s not just the female workers who are affected by the new benefit).

While the debate about whether such a program assists or coerces delayed family planning is new enough that it should provide plenty of back and forth for quite some time, a much more established consideration for women of childbearing age is how a pregnancy would affect their jobs. Despite some longstanding laws designed to protect pregnant workers’ livelihoods, there is often a good deal of confusion for both them and their employers regarding rights and obligations.

The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act became law in 1978, but it seems the 36 years since then have not been enough time for everyone to learn even its most basic protections, including firing or not hiring a woman because she’s pregnant or may become pregnant. In just the past few months, there’s been no shortage of stories about pregnant women being fired or pushed out of jobs in Mississippi, Kansas, and New York. And although it might be easy to dismiss some of the issues as related to smaller businesses lacking the sophisticated human resources departments of, say, Fortune 500 companies, similar claims have recently been lodged against Hobby Lobby and Walmart.

Obviously, an employee ousted for being pregnant is going to be most affected by the firing, but a business making such an illegal move puts itself at enormous financial risk, be it fines from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a lawsuit from the fired employee, or even the potential consumer backlash if the story spreads through grassroots or viral means. Put simply, it’s in the interest of all parties to make sure pregnant employees don’t lose their jobs just because they’re pregnant. With that said, here are some broad pregnancy-related considerations for both workers and employers:

  • Being pregnant or the potential for pregnancy can’t factor into the hiring decision – Even for employers not offering to freeze eggs for younger women, it’s illegal to refuse to hire a woman because she is or might become pregnant.
  • Employers can’t dictate what’s safe for the baby – Except for extremely rare circumstances where the pregnant employee works with known toxic chemicals, is exposed to radiation, or faces some other clear harm to the health of her child, the employer can’t use potentially dangerous work as an excuse to fire them.
  • Pregnancies with special circumstances may require accommodation – Normal pregnancies are not considered a disability, but some pregnancy-related complications or ailments may trigger reasonable accommodation laws. In these situations, a company may need to modify a pregnant worker’s duties unless it can show that doing so would create an “undue hardship.”
  • Nursing mothers get a place to pump – New moms returning to work have a new guarantee under the Affordable Care Act:  a private place (restroom stalls don’t count) to pump breast milk during their breaks for the first year after giving birth. There are some exceptions for small companies that can demonstrate an undue hardship.
  • Dads get time off, too – While maternity leave is still reserved for those who actually carry the babies, if an employer grants non-medical family leave for moms after babies are born, they must extend the same option to men. This gets into protections afforded by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

This list is hardly exhaustive, so it’s best for workers and employers to contact a lawyer for specific questions about rights and responsibilities regarding pregnant employees. Our experienced Atlanta attorneys represent both plaintiffs and defendants in employment matters, including employment discrimination, wage and hour, FMLA, and more.  With offices in Atlanta and Nashville, Parks, Chesin & Walbert offers a client-centered philosophy and strives to accomplish our clients’ goals as if they are our own.  If you live in Georgia or Tennessee and need an experienced Atlanta employment law attorney, contact us today at 404-873-8048.

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