Pregnant employee? Better know the law

When an employee tells you she’s pregnant, it may bring on mixed emotions for supervisors. While you’re happy for the employee, you’re anxious about the impact on scheduling, productivity—and whether she will quit after the birth.  

Another important issue to consider: the legal risks.

Pregnant employees are granted special rights in the workplace under both federal and state laws. On the federal level, the most important law is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which was enacted in 1978 and covers organizations with 15 or more employees.

The PDA makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against workers on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. Such actions would constitute sex discrimination.

One important point: The PDA doesn’t require that employers give special treatment to pregnant employees. It just requires you to deal with pregnant employees the same as you treat any other employees with temporary disabilities.

This issue has been in the news recently because the agency that oversees the PDA—the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—issued its first update to pregnancy discrimination guidelines in 30 years. Here are some key points for managers to remember:

Ignore pregnancy in hiring, firing

Employers can’t fire or refuse to hire a pregnant woman because of her pregnancy, because of a pregnancy-related condition (such as an abortion) or because of the prejudices of co-workers or customers toward pregnant women. For that reason, managers should never ask job applicants during interviews if they plan to have children or have more children.

Handling the initial talk

When you discover the employee is pregnant, offer congratulations and ask how she is feeling. Don’t immediately say something like, “So, will you quit after having the baby?” or “I guess you’ll want lots of time off.”

Employees could use such comments as evidence of discrimination. Suggest that she talk to HR and discuss her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rights and other leave issues.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 says that it’s illegal for employers to:

  • Refuse to hire, to fire or to subject an employee to more adverse working terms and conditions than other employees because she is pregnant (or may become pregnant).
  • Treat pregnancy-related medical conditions differently than other disabling conditions.
  • Discriminate against pregnant employees with regard to health insurance or other benefits.
  • Require pregnant employees to take mandatory maternity leave.
  • Discriminate against an employee because she is unmarried and pregnant.