A recent investigation by the New York Times uncovered evidence of continuing pregnancy discrimination in some of the largest U.S. companies, including Walmart, Merck, Novartis, and Glencore. Although such employment discrimination is illegal under federal law and many state laws, women continue to report they are denied advancement and otherwise suffer adverse employment effects as a result of pregnancy or motherhood.
State & Federal Laws Ban Pregnancy-Based Discrimination
Under Michigan and federal employment laws, discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or pregnancy-related medical conditions amounts to unlawful sex discrimination. Employers are required to treat women who are pregnant or affected by pregnancy-related conditions in the same manner as other applicants or employees who are similar in their ability (or inability) to work. This means that, so long as a woman is able to perform the essential functions of a job, an employer cannot refuse to hire, fail to promote, terminate, layoff, deny benefits, or otherwise treat her differently based on her pregnancy-related condition. The law also forbids employers from retaliating against someone for filing a charge of discrimination or participating in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing on behalf of a co-worker who is believed to be the victim of discrimination.
If a pregnant employee is temporarily unable to perform her job duties as a result of pregnancy-related impairments, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires an employer to treat her the same as it treats any other temporarily disabled employee (e.g., by offering light duty work, modified tasks, alternative assignments, disability leave, or leave without pay as well as for accrual and crediting of seniority, vacation calculation, pay increases, and temporary disability benefits). Eligible employees may also be entitled to 12 weeks of paid or unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act for pregnancy-related conditions or after the birth of a child.
Several states have passed laws requiring employers to affirmatively accommodate pregnant workers, according to the National Women’s Law Center. These laws mandate that employers offer accommodations like rest breaks, light duty, transfer to safer or less strenuous jobs, breaks to express breast milk, and more to pregnant or nursing mothers.
Discrimination Is Ongoing in the Modern Workplace
According to the New York Times article, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 3,184 pregnancy discrimination complaints in 2017, about twice as many as in 1992. Even still, its investigators say many women never file complaints because they can’t afford an attorney, don’t recognize that their employer’s actions are illegal, or fear retaliation. The Times investigation revealed that many women report being passed over for promotions, steered away from prestigious assignments or choice roles, and generally treated as inferior to their male or childless female colleagues. Many women in physically demanding occupations report that their employers asked them to go against their doctors’ recommended physical restrictions, forcing them to put their health in danger or risk their jobs. Numerous lawsuits are pending around the country, including a class action against Merck in New Jersey federal court on behalf of nearly 3,900 women claiming discrimination.
Take Action if You Are a Victim
If you believe you have been discriminated or retaliated against as a result of a pregnancy-related condition, you may be able to file a claim with the EEOC. If you do so, the agency will notify your employer that you have filed a discrimination charge and will begin an investigation. Following its investigation and resolution of your claim, you may have the opportunity to pursue other legal remedies – including a lawsuit – under state or federal law.
The experienced lawyers in Sommers Schwartz’s Employment Litigation Group can help you explore all avenues for compensation and ensure that you comply with the sometimes complicated administrative processes. Please contact us today!