Pregnancy Accommodations Must Be Handled Like a Newborn--Carefully

Despite several high-profile U.S. Supreme Court cases that found employers liable for pregnancy discrimination, such claims remain high and employers continue to be confused about how to handle pregnancy-related disability, accommodations, and leaves.

Some employers go overboard in wanting to “protect” a pregnant woman and her baby; if a woman asks for lighter duties, for example, some employers will try to persuade her to stop work entirely. But many pregnant women want and need to work, and so employers must know their duties to avoid costly claims.

The ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, applies to pregnant women in exactly the same way it applies to other employees. “[Pregnant workers] must be accorded the same rights, leave privileges and other benefits, as other workers who are disabled from working,” the EEOC said in a recent clarification of the law. California has its own separate law under the Fair Employment and Housing Act which applies to pregnant employees addressing needs for leaves of absence and accommodations.  For example, a pregnant woman who has been instructed by her doctor not to lift heavy objects must be treated the same way as an employee with a ruptured disc in their back who needs a similar accommodation. And like any other employee, pregnant women cannot be fired because an employer simply believes they cannot do their assigned job because of their pregnancy. As a reasonable accommodation, the employee must be moved or reassigned to another job that allows them to continue working.  Likewise, an employer cannot suggest a reduction in duties, other accommodations or leave if the employee does not request them.

Some accommodations are quite simple, such as allowing a pregnant worker to take more frequent breaks, to keep a water bottle at a workstation, or to use a stool instead of standing. Claims among women in low-wage jobs are particularly prevalent. Reassignment of duties can trip up employers who don’t think creatively about what a pregnant employee is capable of doing. Don’t turn a happy event into a complicated one.