Pregnancy Discrimination at Work and Failure to Accommodate Pregnancy Work Restrictions

by Chris Kuhlman on March 8, 2016

Under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act Employers may not discriminate against their workers based on pregnancy or pregnancy-related disabilities.  This means that employers may not fire, refuse to hire, refuse to promote, or otherwise mistreat female workers because of their pregnancy (or ability to become pregnant).  That includes unlawfully passing up pregnant women for raises, benefits, training, and job assignments.  It also means that employers can’t retaliate against workers who complain about pregnancy discrimination. The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits those sorts of adverse employment actions and treats pregnancy discrimination as a form of sex discrimination.  Minnesota also has state laws that are similar to the PDA and which protect pregnant women’s rights.

Work Restrictions related to your pregnancy

But what if your pregnancy stops you from performing your ordinary job duties?  Does your employer need to reassign you to another job within the company, one with lighter physical activity or less standing up?  Well, like many things in the law, it depends.

The PDA requires employers to treat employees who are disabled due to pregnancy the same way as it treats employees who are similarly disabled for other reasons.  For example, if the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires a company to provide reasonable accommodations to a retail stocker who cannot lift heavy weight because his back is injured, the company should also provide reasonable accommodations to a retail stocker who cannot lift heavy weight because she is pregnant.  The concept of reasonable accommodation is complicated, but it includes actions like assigning the worker to light duty temporarily or having him or her use special equipment to perform the job.  A company does not have to accommodate a worker if those accommodations would be too expensive or cause too much hardship to the worker.

A Supreme Court case from 2015, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., clarified how pregnancy discrimination work restriction cases play out.  First, a worker alleging intentional pregnancy discrimination needs to show that she belongs to a protected class of workers, that she asked for accommodation for her pregnancy-related work limitations, that the employer did not make reasonable accommodations for her, and that the employer did accommodate workers who although were not pregnant had similar work restrictions as the pregnant worker.  In the example above, the pregnant retail stocker could show that other stockers in similar jobs got reasonable accommodations for their disabilities, and that the employer was apparently treating pregnancy differently from conditions like back pain.  This lets courts and juries infer that the reason for the different treatment is intentional and unlawfully discriminatory.

Then, the employer must show “legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for denying her accommodation.” Id. at 21.  The expense or inconvenience of accommodating pregnant women in addition to disabled workers doesn’t count as a legitimate reason.  Id.  The worker may then say that these reasons are just a pretext – they may look legitimate and non-discriminatory on paper, but in reality, those reasons aren’t strong enough to justify the discrepancy in treatment. Id.   Finally, a jury decides which party they believe and whether the employer’s justifications are solid enough to overcome the worker’s allegations.

The EEOC interprets the ADA to mandate that employers accommodate workers for disabilities incurred off the job as well as those who were injured at work, and it also requires employers to accommodate workers with temporary as well as permanent disabilities. 29 CFR pt. 1630, App., § 1630.2(j)(1)(ix). This means that an employer must reasonably accommodate its workers with back pain due to short-term skiing injuries and its workers with back pain from pregnancy – or if it only accommodates the skier and not the pregnant woman, it needs to have a legitimate reason why.

Job Protection for Pregnant Workers in Minnesota

Bottom line: if you think you have experienced workplace discrimination due to your pregnancy – lost benefits, unfavorable assignments, being fired or laid off (especially instead of given light duty or other accommodations), being passed over for a promotion or raise, and so forth – you may have a case for sex discrimination under federal and Minnesota law.  Contact an employment lawyer and bring any documentation you may have.

If you have been subjected to improper pregnancy discrimination at work, contact an experienced Minnesota pregnancy discrimination lawyer at Kuhlman Law, PLLC.    To learn more and schedule a free consultation with Minneapolis Employee Rights Lawyer Christopher Kuhlman, call 612 349 2747.

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