EEOC Expands Pregnancy Discrimination Protections for Employees

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidance on pregnancy discrimination that provides, for the first time, that employers must offer light duty assignments to pregnant employees if they make light duty available to non-pregnant employees.

Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), an employer engages in sex discrimination if it fires, refuses to hire, demotes, or takes any other adverse action against a woman if pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition was a motivating factor in the adverse employment action.

The PDA also requires employers to provide pregnant workers equal access to benefits of employment such as leave, light duty, and health benefits, according to the EEOC Guidance.

That means that an employer must provide a pregnant employee light duty ‒that is, temporary work that is less physically demanding than her normal duties‒ if the employer provides light duty for employees who are not pregnant but who are similar in their ability or inability to work.

For example, an employer may not deny light duty to a pregnant employee based on a policy that limits light duty to employees with on-the-job injuries. By the same token, if an employer’s policy places certain types of restrictions on the availability of light duty positions, such as limits on the number of light duty positions or the duration of light duty, the employer may lawfully apply the same restrictions to pregnant workers as it applies to non-pregnant workers. If an employer does not provide light duty to employees who are not pregnant, it does not have to do so for pregnant workers.

Additionally, an employer may not force an employee to take leave because she is pregnant as long as she is able to perform the job. The PDA also requires employers to allow employees with physical limitations resulting from pregnancy to take leave on the same terms and conditions as non-pregnant employees, the EEOC said.

What’s more, the EEOC noted that employers can violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if they fail to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with impairments related to pregnancy. While pregnancy itself is not a disability under the ADA, pregnancy-related impairments may be covered if they substantially limit one or more major life activities

Pregnancy-related impairments can include pelvic inflammation, which may substantially limit the ability to walk; pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome affecting the ability to lift or to perform manual tasks; pregnancy-related sciatica limiting musculoskeletal functions; gestational diabetes limiting endocrine function; and preeclampsia, which causes high blood pressure, affecting cardiovascular and circulatory functions.

If an employee seeks a reasonable accommodation because of a pregnancy-related impairment, the employer must attempt to provide one. An employer may only deny the request if it would result in an undue hardship, which is as requiring significant difficulty or expense.

Examples of reasonable accommodations include:

  • Redistributing marginal or nonessential functions (for example, occasional lifting);
  • Modifying workplace policies, such as allowing a pregnant worker more frequent breaks or allowing her to keep a water bottle at a workstation;
  • Modifying a work schedule to accommodate severe morning sickness;
  • Allowing a pregnant worker placed on bed rest to telework where feasible;
  • Granting leave in addition to what an employer would normally provide under a sick leave policy;
  • Purchasing or modifying equipment, such as a stool for a pregnant employee who needs to sit while performing job tasks typically performed while standing; and
  • Temporarily reassigning an employee to a light duty position.
  • The entire EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination, along with fact sheet for small business owners, may be found at http://www.eeoc.gov/.
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