Over 30 years ago, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a law that prevents discrimination in the workplace against pregnant women. Women today make up approximately half of the workforce, and many women work through their pregnancies. While the law has been around for decades, pregnancy discrimination is still an issue today, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which tracks the number of pregnancy lawsuits filed in the U.S. It appears that rather than being reduced, pregnancy discrimination may be on the rise.
A senior sales representative from the drug maker Merck & Co. recently filed a $100 million pregnancy discrimination lawsuit alleging the company has a "systematic, companywide discriminatory treatment of its female employees.” The lawsuit alleges that the company pays women less compensation and denies them promotional opportunities because of concerns regarding the women's maternity leave. It is too early for outsiders to gauge the merits of the case.
The complaint also alleges that Merck's management tries to force pregnant women to leave the company. Plaintiff is seeking class-action status for the suit. If Plaintiff can prove that her employer has a practice of trying to force women to resign, the damages could be substantial. A similar lawsuit against the Swiss drug company Novartis AG is said to have netted female employees $250 million in 2010.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act protects women from discriminationthat results in from any condition related to pregnancy, including gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. An employer may have to provide “light duty,” alternative assignments or unpaid leave to pregnant women.
Behavior that is hostile or offensive is harassmentand is unlawful. Pregnant women should be but are not always protected from such behavior.
Pregnant Workers Fairness Act
New bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress aimed at protecting pregnant women in the workplace. Senators Robert Casey and Jeanne Shaheen are introducing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in the Senate. It met with little success last year, but the senators put forward the bill a few days after Mother’s Day this year. A similar bill has also been introduced in the House.
The PWFA would prohibit certain public and private employers from refusing to make reasonable accommodations for the limitations of pregnancy. This would be particularly relevant to jobs that require workers to stand on their feet most of the day or lift heavy objects. This would apply to job applicants and employees, the only exception being if the business would face “undue hardship” if forced to accommodate a pregnant worker.
The bill would also prevent businesses from requiring pregnant women to take leave if the business could institute reasonable accommodations.
A family problem
Pregnancy discrimination does not just affect the pregnant women. With many women being either the primary income producer or a significant part of the family income, pregnancy discrimination can negatively affect entire families and reduce motivation to have children. Women who believe that they have experienced pregnancy discrimination or harassment at work should contact an attorney to discuss their legal options, which could include the potential to receive monetary damages and/or reinstatement to their positions if they have lost their jobs.