Laura Berlinsky-Schine

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which made discrimination on the basis of pregnancy- and childbirth-related medical conditions illegal, was passed in 1978, but that doesn’t mean pregnancy discrimination is no longer an issue.

Nearly 31,000 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2010 and 2015. And despite some advances—in 2008, for instance, employers became responsible for providing pregnant women with necessary accommodations as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act—pregnant employees continue to face discrimination due to their pregnancies and aren’t receiving the work accommodations they need.

In early 2018, CNN reported on a case in which Whitney Tomlinson, a 30-year-old single mother and packer at a Walmart Distribution Center in Atlanta, was told she had to apply for an unpaid leave from the job because of her pregnancy. Walmart's human resources department also told her she would not be allowed to return to work until after she gave birth. This placed a huge financial—not to mention emotional—burden on the her. After some research and conversations with her doctor, Tomlinson decided to take action against her employer. Now, A Better Balance, a family rights advocacy group, is filing a discrimination charge against Walmart with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on her behalf, since Walmart’s treatment of Tomlinson is discriminatory and illegal.

What does the Pregnancy Discrimination Act cover?

The PDA covers discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, noting that this constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII, which pertains to employers with 15 or more employees. Employers may not fire, refuse to hire, or otherwise discriminate against women on the basis of their pregnancy or pregnancy-related condition.

What is the definition of pregnancy discrimination?

The PDA is an amendment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It expressly prohibits discrimination “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” It also notes that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes.” As part of Title VII, the PDA denotes discrimination against pregnant workers as a violation of workers' civil rights and a form of sex discrimination.

Can you legally fire a pregnant woman?

Your employer cannot legally fire or reassign you because you are pregnant, nor can she prohibit you from working or returning to work after giving birth.

 According to the EEOC’s clarifying guidelines about the PDA, the law doesn’t just cover current pregnancies—it also covers past and future pregnancies. That means, for instance, your employer can't fire you at the end of your maternity leave, and must accomodate pregnancy-related needs, such as breastfeeding and lactation.

Can a job turn you down for being pregnant?

 An employer cannot refuse to hire someone because she is pregnant or has a medical condition related to her pregnancy.

 Since pregnant employees and workers may have impairments related to or because of their pregnancies, the Americans with Disabilities Act specifies that employers may not discriminate against workers with pregnancy-related impairments, and must provide an “individual with a reasonable accommodation if needed because of a pregnancy-related disability.” These reasonable accommodations might include modifying workplace policies so that the pregnant worker can take more frequent breaks or redistributing duties, such as lifting, that a pregnant worker cannot perform.

What does the PDA cover?

The PDA only covers employers with 15 or more employees. Some states have additional laws covering employers with fewer than 15 employees. If your employer has fewer than 15 employees and you have questions about the pregnancy discrimination policy, check with your regional U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau office.

Can my employer treat me any differently or ask me to submit to special procedures when I'm pregnant?

Pregnancy is considered a temporary disability. That means your employer must treat a pregnant employee the same way she treats other employees who are temporarily sick or disabled if you are unable to perform your job duties while pregnant. It also means that if you take leave, your employer must hold your job for the same amount of time she would hold the job of an employee who is on leave due to an illness or disability.

Your employer cannot require pregnant women to submit to special procedures to determine whether or not she can perform her job duties, unless the employer requires all other employees to submit to the same procedures.

Additionally, employer-provided health insurance plans must treat pregnancy-related conditions the same way it treats other medical conditions. Pregnant workers are entitled to the same benefits they received before their pregnancy.

Am I legally entitled to maternity leave?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, allows workers to take time off from their jobs to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. Under this law, you may take up to 12 week of unpaid leave in any 12-month period. This law also covers other circumstances, such as personal or family illnesses. When you return to work, you must be allowed to resume the same job you had before your leave, and you must be entitled to the benefits and entitlements you had previously. You may also continue to receive group health insurance and benefits during your leave.

If you think your employer or a potential employer has discriminated against you because of your pregnancy or pregnancy-related condition or failed to provide reasonable accomodations for your pregnancy, you can file a charge with the EEOC. You may do so online, in person at an EEOC office, in person at a state or local fair employment practice agency, or by mail. You may not file the charge by telephone, but you can initiate the process by phone. Visit the EEOC website for instructions on how to file, information on the process, and time limits for filing your claim.